Mont Saint-Michel is a formidable-looking island made of granite, jutting out of the North Atlantic, about half a mile off France’s Northwestern Normandy coastline. The island encompasses 247 acres and is 3,150 feet around and 302 feet above sea level.
It’s famous for its 11th century Romanesque Abbey Church perched atop the Mont, along with monastery buildings, cloisters, and a refectory that were added during the following 2 centuries.
It was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979, recognized for its historical and cultural significance. Each year, over 3 million tourists and pilgrims visit this landmark.
When you see Mont Saint-Michel in the distance for the first time, it can, at once, stir up feelings of awe and thoughts of,
“Why on Earth would anyone want to build anything on such an inhospitable piece of rock, constantly beaten by the wind and the waves of the North Atlantic!?”
Well, apparently, legend has it and believers believe the Archangel Michel appeared to St. Aubert in 708 telling him to build a church on Mont Saint-Michel, which was then called Mont Tombe. It appears St. Aubert didn’t take the request too seriously until St. Michel returned a second time and burned a hole in St. Aubert’s skull with his finger. Yikes! Well, that lit a metaphorical fire under St. Aubert! He wasted no time and a church was opened on Mont Tombe on Oct. 16, 709.
What you see today on Mont Saint-Michel was built between the 11th-16th centuries. It began when Richard II hired an Italian architect, who designed the abbey with the 4-way crossing, typically near the altar, where the main aisle ends, to be at the top of the Mont, instead! Numerous chapels and crypts are under the abbey and used to brace the upward-rising structure.
Did you know? Mont Saint-Michel was the inspiration for the design of Minas Tirith in the Lord of the Rings: Return of the King.
Of course, visitors come to admire the architecture of the Abbey and its church, cloisters, and grand chamber. It’s hard to miss the imposing church spire reaching toward the clouds! The main street leads you directly from the entrance to the Abbey stairs! But, why not go beyond street level and discover a few of the reasons why Mont Saint-Michel is so spectacular.
4 Interesting Reasons to Make You Love Mont Saint-Michel
Mont Saint-Michel is steeped in history (excuse my shameless pun). There have been numerous attempts to conquer the Mont and use it for its strategic position. The Bayeaux Tapestries, which tell the story of the Norman conquest in 1066, show 2 Norman knights being rescued from the quicksand surrounding Mont Saint-Michel. During the Hundreds Years War, the English failed at multiple attempts to conquer the Mont.
The Mont’s fortifications were used in reverse during the French Revolution when Mont St-Michel was transformed into a prison. There was no escaping for the political and clerical dissidents being held! At the end of the 19th century, the Abbey had to be restored and was finally declared a historical landmark.
2. Medieval City
In the 15th and 16th centuries, a medieval city gradually formed along the southeastern side of the rock, appearing to just barely cling to the lower outcroppings of the island. Today, visitors still enter in through the walled city gates and pass under the portcullis.
15th and 16th-century buildings line the spiraling main street, leading to the steep steps up to Abbey. Mont Saint-Michel is so well-preserved. It’s easy to imagine a bustling village street with markets, free roaming animals, and locals going about daily chores.
Did you know? La Mere Poulard is a well-known restaurant in the walled city, founded by Annette Poulard around 1879. Its claim to fame is the gigantic omelets which are made in copper bowls and cooked over open fire. There’s also an autograph wall showing famous people, like Earnest Hemingway, who have dined at the restaurant.
Truth be told, though, this restaurant is overpriced, with declining food reviews. You’re better off eating elsewhere. If you do decide to visit La Mere Poulard, be sure to make reservations. It books well in-advance.
Today, just 50 people live on Mont Saint-Michel, including a small population of monks and nuns. The shops no longer house candle makers, apothecaries, and vendors selling cooked meats. Instead, they’re filled with souvenir bric-a-brac for the daily tourist visitors.
TIP: Buy some “Les Gallettes.” These local butter cookies are delicious!
Research and book fantastic hotels near and on Mont Saint-Michel on TripAdvisor and Booking.com! I stayed in Bayeux and was conveniently located near the train station and many of the area’s top sights!
From the main street, take one of the smaller pathways leading to the ramparts for panoramic views of the water. The Bay of Mont Saint-Michel boasts Europe’s highest and lowest tides. There can be up to a 50-foot difference between high and low tides!
The highest tides happen within a day or 2 of a full or new moon. Low tide can go out up to 9 miles and according to Victor Hugo come in, “as swiftly as a galloping horse!”
The tidal causeway leading from the mainland to the Mont would flood at times of high tide. There also used to be 2 parking lots within feet of Mont Saint-Michel’s entrance. These would flood during high tide. Signs posted warned drivers to make note of the high tide times, or else!
A new light bridge replaced the tidal causeway as part of a damn project in the area. The new parking lots are 1.5 miles away, with regular shuttles bringing visitors across the bridge.
Water flows underneath the bridge, except on super tides!
4. Local Cuisine
At the end of the day, be sure to experience some (or all!) of the region’s specialties. When the tide goes out, the area’s salt marshes become grazing pastures for local sheep. Their meat, Agneau de pré-salé, is a local specialty because the sheep have been pre-flavored, so-to-speak, from their salty grazing pastures.
If lamb doesn’t suit your tastes, indulge in local seafood at its best! Shellfish, like oysters, scallops, clams and lobster will be served at restaurants throughout the region and paired with creme sauces and rich cheeses like Camembert. I had the best scallops of my life at a small restaurant in Bayeux, Normandy!
Complete your culinary feast with some apple tart or sip on some Calvados, an apple liquor, perfect for cleansing your palette and digesting all the deliciousness of the night’s meal.
Planning A Trip to Mont Saint-Michel
It’s simple to plan a couple day excursion to Normandy from Paris. We used Bayeux as a base to explore the area. Trains from Paris took about 2 1/2 hours. Once in Bayeux, you can walk or take a taxi to the city center where most hotels are located.
Mont Saint-Michel can be visited throughout the year. It’s open every day, except January 1st and December 25th. During the winter off-season, the weather is chillier, but there are no crowds. Hours vary slightly by season. Entrance to the Abbey is 10 € for adults. Children under 18 are free.
To explore the area, you’ll need a rental car or a guide. We had an incredible tour with Normandy Sightseeing Tours, who transported us to and from Mont Saint-Michel.
There are no direct public transportation options. Trains from Paris Gare Montparnasse connect to a bus in Rennes to bring you to the Mont’s entrance.
Walking is the only way to get around while on the Mont.
Where to Stay:
Mont Saint-Michel can be seen in 1 day. But, if you wanted to stay nearby or experience the Mont in the evening with fewer tourists, you can research and book a variety of hotel options.
Otherwise, look for comfortable hotels in Bayeux or the surrounding towns. You’ll be centrally located and close to the numerous WW2 sites to see, as well as the famous Bayeux Tapestries.
Have you been to Mont Saint-Michel? Would you like to visit?
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