The Do’s, Don’ts, and Maybes of Mont Saint Michel

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.

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Mont Saint Michel

Photo Credit: Andrés Nieto Porras via Flickr

Background

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.

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The Abbey of Mont Saint Michel

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!

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The tides of Mont Saint Michel

Photo Credit: izarbeltza via Flickr

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.

Planning

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

We decided to stay at La Vielle Auberge because it was the best deal at the time. Our room was quaint and did the job. If you want to stay on the island, you can also check out the following hotel: Le Mouton Blanc, Les Terrasses Poulard, Hôtel la Croix Blanche, Auberge Saint Pierre, and La Mère Poulard.

To me, the only advantage of 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.

msm abbey at night
The Mont Saint Michel Abbey at night
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The Grand Rue before the flood of tourists comes in

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.

msm walkway
The walkway to Mont Saint Michel

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.

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A courtyard within the Abbey
into the bay
Looking out into the bay from the Abbey
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Inside the Mont Saint Michel Abbey

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.

Eating

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.

fluffy omelette
The soufflée omelette

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.


Final Thoughts

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!

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Sunrise from inside Mont Saint Michel

31 comments

Comments

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    • Hi there! If you’re staying for the night, I think it’s still worth it so you can explore the town with less crowds and a different atmosphere. No high tide also means you could stay outside the town and walk back at night. However, if you’re way more interested in the tide than the town itself, it might not be worth it. Let me know if you have more questions.

  • I plan to travel there from 3rd November and back on 6th November. Since I plan to take train from Frankfurt-Paris-MontStMichel and back, it will be a 2-day full tour. Is this ok or too much? Is this a very low season, super quiet, empty and boring?

    • Hi Jeffrey! Great to hear from you. I think two full days in Mont Saint Michel are plenty. I honestly think you can visit the site in a day and then explore at night. However, if you book a tour where you get to explore the surroungin sand areas, then I think the two full days could be quite fulfilling. Though the travel getting there might be long (Germany to Mont Saint Michel), I think you will have a relaxing two days there. I think the crowds should be less than in the summer, but it will likely be a bit busy during the day as this is a popular destination for travellers and tour buses. Good luck!

  • Is there a day of the week when it might be less crowded? I am debating on going either Tuesday of Thursday in the 3rd week of September. I’m sure it probably doesn’t vary enough to warrant the amount of thought I’m putting into it, but I figured it doesn’t hurt to ask.
    Thanks!

    • Hi Helen! Thanks for your question. I honestly don’t think there is much of a difference between going on Tuesday vs. Thursday. There is usually a pretty steady stream of people (even in off-season). I think crowds depend more on the tide schedule. If you’re planning on staying overnight, there will be less people in the early morning and evening. Hope this helps and have a wonderful trip!

  • Highly recommend visiting after dark! In October 2014, six family members rented a car and spent a week in northern France. We visited Mont St. Michel, staying on the mainland, but very close to the island. We arrived late and had a late supper, deciding to walk from our hotel to the island after dark (I believe that it was about 10:00 p.m.) The approach at night is breathtaking, and we felt it was a highlight of the entire Mont St. Michel visit. Like you, we found the town nearly deserted and were able to wander along the dark atmospheric streets, imagining what it might have been like during the Middle Ages. Also that night, we visited the charming Chapel of St. Peter and adjacent small cemetery, located at the base of the Abbey. This was an eerie, yet enjoyable experience. As you said, it was quite serene and we all loved the other-worldly essence of visiting late at night. Unforgettable! Very much enjoyed reading your piece.

  • Hello, I’m taking my GF here in the beginning of march for her bday. Do you know if the tide will be here for this date and also, can you actually sleep in the castle? 🙂

  • Thank you for a great assessment. As we are somewhat worried about the area being too touristy, can you recommend a nearby town or area to stay in? We have a car so a nominal drive is not an issue. Thanks, again.

  • Hi! I totally agree with you… STAY ON THE ISLAND if you can afford it. Thinking about spending 2 nights on the island. Do you think this is too much? It’s for our anniversary… looking for something a bit relaxing… it’s totally okay if we take our time on the island with the tours, etc. But, will we have enough of places to eat without having to venture off the island? Thanks! Enjoyed reading your blog 🙂

    • Hi Steph! That’s so great you are going to stay on the island. I think you can stay 2 nights without feeling restless. You can definitely dine at a different venue throughout your trip, but food is pricey and you might find the menus similar. If you arrive in the afternoon/evening you can have a relaxing stroll throughout the city (perhaps see the Abbey). For your full day, I would definitely try to book a guided tour of the bay (I would love to do this one day!) OR you can leisurely take in the Abbey, small museums, and the island itself. This itinerary lets you leave comfortably before or after breakfast on your last day. On our last day, we left right after breakfast so we could take in the views of the island from across the bay before we boarded our bus. I hope this helps and have a great anniversary trip!

  • Hi there,
    Where did you stay on the island? I’m thinking of getting the ferry from Portsmouth to Malo and staying for two nights. Do you know if there’s somewhere I can park my car near by for those two nights?
    Best
    Tim

  • Hi I am planning for a trio in MSM this coming May, is this a low season month? Any suggestion where to stay in thr mainland or is it advisable to stay in the island? Thank you

    • I think May is more of a cusp month. It’s right before peak season. In terms of where you want to stay, that depends on the amount of time you want to spend in the region and your budget. My post goes into this and if you have a look at the other comments, I address this in more detail. If you want to explore at night, find the best fit hotel for you on the island. If you want to save some money (not always) and take in the view of Mont Saint Michel from the distance, then stay on the mainland.

  • We are staying in Rennes in late September and will have a half day Saturday and full day Sunday to see Saint Malo and MSM. Which one should we devote the entire day to?

    • I haven’t been to St. Malo so I can’t speak to the comparison. In terms of seeing as much as you can, MSM is small and contained so you can see the major parts in half a day. Regardless of where you choose to spend the full day, I would recommend doing a little research to see what other areas are nearby in case you wrap up your visit early and want to see something else. Hope this helps!

  • Hi there, We are planning for Sept 2019 to visit MSM, arriving 12pm, staying overnight on/near MSM, at Pontorson or wherever, (as we havent yet decided) and leave the next day about 3pm to train back to Paris. Do we have time to travel to St Malo on the morning we leave or can you suggest somewhere to visit in the vicinity of MSM. We wil be using public transport.
    Thanks for your views on this web site re MSM.

    • Hi Shirl. I think trying to do a quick morning in St. Malo with public transport might be pushing it. If it’s something you really want to do, I would recommend waking up early, checking all the connections, and leave time for a contingency plan in case you miss your intended connection. Most of your time will be taken up with travel that morning so I don’t think you would have much time in St. Malo. We were in a similar situation. I would recommend spending some time exploring the main city where will depart from on your way to Paris. For example, we went to Paris via Rennes so we took an earlier connection from Mont-Saint-Michel and explored Rennes before departing for Paris in the afternoon. I hope that helps and have a great trip!

  • Hello,

    Thank you for the wonderful report. I’m planning a day trip on my own in May, coming with a train and a bus. Do you think it’s worth it? Will it be too crowded? I can’t stay the night so I want to explore as much as I can arriving at about 11:30 and leaving at 18:00. I’m wandering about the visit in the abbey. There are sevral options for on-line tickets but none of them is for individuals. Did you also visited the museum?

  • Hello,

    Thank you for the wonderful report. I’m planning a day trip on my own in May, coming with a train and a bus. Do you think it’s worth it? Will it be too crowded? I can’t stay the night so I want to explore as much as I can arriving at about 11:30 and leaving at 18:00. I’m wandering about the visit in the abbey. There are sevral options for on-line tickets but none of them is for individuals. Did you also visited the museum?

    • Hello Zvi! Nice to hear from you. If this is a place you really want to see, I think it is worth it. You probably won’t see the tide (if it’s a tide day), but if the other aspects of the site attract you, go for it. Most times of the year, the island is crowded during the day. It’s a popular stop for many tours. I think you will have plenty of time to roam the Abbey and the rest of the island. You can buy single tickets at the Abbey itself. We didn’t go to the Museum so I can’t speak to that part. I hope this helps!

  • We arrive St. Malo at around 13:00 and have to leave by 21:00 same day. Is it realistic to visit MSM and what would be a good transport option ? Thank you

    • I think it is doable if you want a quick afternoon to stroll around the island AND if you go by car. It takes at least an hour one-way and you need to account for time for getting from the parking lot to the island (ca. 30min one way). If you’re okay with spending 3-4 hours at MSM, then go for it.

Smiti Nathan

I’m an archaeologist that travels around the world for both work and pleasure. I have a penchant for exploring ancient and modern places and the people, plants, and foods entangled in them. I write about archaeology, travel, and productivity.

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