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As the legend goes, the Archangel Michael appeared to the the Bishop of Avranches, Aubert, in the 8th century and told him to build a church in his honour.
Bishop Aubert ignored him, so Saint Michael asked him again, and again he was ignored. This continued until the Archangel burnt a hole in the bishop’s skull with his finger, and Aubert agreed to build the church.
It seems quite mean to burn a hole in someone’s skull just because they won’t do you a favour. But, then again, when you look at Mont Saint Michel today, it’s hard to imagine France without it.
I’m kind of glad that Archangel Michael was a bit heavy-handed with Aubert, or we wouldn’t have this masterpiece today. According to the legend, that is…
Mont Saint Michel really is a symbol of France, up there with places like the Eiffel Tower and the Palace of Versailles. The castle church rising up the side of the mountain island, the water surrounding it at high tide, reflecting on the surface. It is a stunning vista, no doubt.
But it’s not until you visit Mont Saint Michel that you look at the details of the island and the surrounding region and realise the depth of what is here.
There is Mont Saint Michel Abbey itself, the jewel in the crown. It stands at the top of the mountain and is an enormous complex of stunning rooms that have evolved over hundreds of years from the first sanctuary built here in the 8th century.
It takes hours to explore it properly and appreciate the different phases of its construction that have merged religious devotion with fortifications and more utilitarian uses.
Beneath the abbey is the island town of Mont Saint Michel, the quaint collection of buildings full of little discoveries (although you need to navigate your way through the crowds and the tacky tourist offerings).
Then, surrounding the island, the Bay of Mont Saint Michel. This is more than just the water that flows in at high tide and creates the island. It’s easy to forget that there is a whole ecosystem here in the sand and the marshes by the shore, and it’s worth exploring on its own.
And there’s the mainland as well, with the large part of the Mont Saint Michel town, with hotels and restaurants and transport links. It has its own charm and is not simply a community to pass through.
I spend a couple of nights here – probably longer than the average visitor – but even that seems too short and I’m not quite ready to leave. Because as soon as you start looking at Mont Saint Michel as more than just a single tourist site, you realise that there is whole landscape to explore.
What makes it particularly special, is the way everything changes throughout the day. As the sun moves from one side of the sky to the other, the light shifts dramatically and the morning Mont St Michel looks very different to the evening Mont St Michel.
And the change in the tides also has a huge effect, with the exposed sand of the bay at low tide creating a very different effect to the water of the high tide.
On top of all of this are the details that only show themselves when you give yourself the time to discover them.
The tidal wave that comes in just twice a day as a prelude to the water rising; the views from the top of the abbey that you can access with certain special tours; the local specialities in the town’s restaurants; the quicksand in the bay; the perfect spot for a unusual photo.
All of this is one of the reasons that I’ve enjoyed seeing Mont Saint Michel as part of the Romantic theme of the World Heritage Journeys of Europe project, which encourages you to discover these World Heritage Sites a bit differently.
To show you what I mean, I would like to share a few more of the details of what you’ll find on a visit to Mont Saint Michel.
Things to do in Mont St Michel
Mont Saint Michel has long been an important pilgrimage destination and that has not changed today. There are still groups that make a religious pilgrimage to the island – but the tourists, making a different sort of pilgrimage, vastly outnumber them.
But the tourists tend to arrive mid-morning on day trips from Paris and focus just on the main parts of the island. With some clever planning, you can avoid the peak times each day and have a more relaxed experience.
The Abbey of Mont Saint Michel
The Mont Saint Michel Abbey is the most important part of the site and is the highlight of a visit. You reach it by walking up one of the paths from the entrance gate at the bottom of the island.
As I mentioned, the first sanctuary was founded here in the 8th century but it wasn’t until a Romanesque church was built around the end of the 11th century that the site began to take on its current form.
Over the years, there were more expansions, with some ramparts in the 13th century but most of them appearing in the 15th century, for example. The last addition was the spire at the end of the 19th century.
On your visit to the Mont Saint Michel Abbey, you’ll see how the different stages blend together, and how there is a wide variety of styles within the complex.
There are the terraces with magnificent views stretching across the bay. There are the fortifications that give the abbey the feeling of a castle in parts. And there are the dungeon-like rooms in the heart of the mountain that transport you back to the Middle Ages.
The main church of the abbey is an impressive space, decorated in a flamboyant Gothic style. On one side, a statue of the Archangel Michael looks out across the church, presumably pleased that his skull burning led to something so beautiful.
From the church, you can go through to the structure known as the Merveille (which means ‘marvel’ in English). The construction lives up to the name, because this really is a masterpiece.
On the top level is the refectory and the cloisters, with their bright symmetry and detailed design, so dainty in appearance. One level down is the cavernous dining hall with imposing fireplaces.
It really serves to take your time as you walk through the abbey and explore the different areas. There’s much more to see than I can tell you about here, and I would recommend getting an audioguide or taking one of the free guided tours so you appreciate it all.
There are also some special guided tours that you can do for an extra cost. These will take you to areas that are not normally accessible.
One goes higher up the abbey, on the roof of the church, from where you can look down at the complex and see the stunning architecture from a different angle, perhaps the way that it would look from the heavens.
If you have the opportunity, it is certainly a very special experience.
Mont Saint Michel island
The town beneath the abbey on the island of Mont St Michel is quite small – the official population is only about 50 people and most buildings are used as hotels, shops and restaurants.
While it’s interesting to wander the main street that winds up the hill and explore some of the little side alleys, there is not too much of heritage value here. It’s more interesting for shopping and eating.
It is worth having a look at the small Church of St Peter, which is about halfway up the main street. It is from the 15th century and, although it’s dedicated to the patron saint of fishermen, Saint Peter, there is a statue of Saint Michael slaying the dragon – a reference to its famous location.
If you stay overnight in Mont Saint Michel, I would suggest going for a walk in the town early in the morning before the crowds arrive – it’s a very different experience compared to later in the day!
Mont Saint Michel Bay Crossing
Looking out from the island, your view will be dominated by the impressive bay, which may be covered in water or sand, depending on the times of the tide the day you visit Mont Saint Michel.
The bay is not just for looking, though. It is also for walking, because it has been part of the route for pilgrims for centuries. You can experience some of this yourself with a ‘Bay Crossing’.
There is nothing stopping you walking out on the sand by yourself during low tide but the advice is that you shouldn’t go too far on your own. The tides do come in quickly and it’s possible to get trapped. There are also patches of quicksand and other dangers to look out for.
A better option is to go on one of the guided tours of the bay crossing that are taken by the Chemins de la Baie organisation. There are a few options but I enjoy the one I do, where we walk from the Mont Saint Michel island, across to Tombelaine island.
The island is small but has its own history. It was home to two monks in the 11th century and, during the Hundred Years War, had fortifications built on it as a military base.
The group is mainly French-speakers and the guide, Bertrand, speaks to them in French.
Then he walks alongside me and explains in English what he has been saying about the history, the nature, and the unique ecosystem of this tidal basin.
Walk from Mont Saint Michel town
Many visitors skip the mainland town of Mont Saint Michel, just getting the shuttle bus straight from the car park to the island and back again. But it’s a pleasant area that you don’t need to ignore.
You’re more likely to spend some time here if you’re staying overnight, because this is where the most comfortable and convenient hotels are – and also where you’ll find reasonably-priced restaurants. There are particularly good meal deals at lunch.
But the reason I want to mention the town is not because it has the best sights within it, but because I would recommend using it as your base for walking to the island. Rather than get the shuttle bus, there are wonderful paths that go through the town – along the river, in the woods, or along the main street – and onto the bridge to the island.
This bridge is relatively new, opening in 2014, and was part of a grand project to “make Mont St Michel an island again”. Previously there was a causeway that meant the water couldn’t go all the way around.
I love walking across the bridge – there are such beautiful views of the island and the bay as you make your way across. And between the town and the start of the bridge, there are some great vantage points for photos that you can access.
I would recommend leaving yourself enough time to walk, stop, photography, detour a little. It’s not hard to get away from the hordes of tourists and explore in the marshes a bit. Particularly as the tide is coming in, or the sun is setting, there are some magical views to be found!
Getting from Paris to Mont St Michel
BY CAR: Mont Saint Michel is about 350 kilometres away from France and it’s a fairly simple drive, if you have a car. The best route to take is via Caen and it should take you about four hours.
If you are driving, I would recommend stopping at the Museum of the Manuscripts of Mont Saint Michel in Avranches on the way (or on the way back) to .
When you arrive, the closest you can get in your car is about three kilometres from the island. There’s a large parking lot where you can leave the car (€9 a day in low season and €14 a day in high season).
From the car park, you can get the free bus shuttle to the island, or it’s about a 30 minute walk. (Be warned, there can be long queues for the bus at the peak times of the day.)
BY PUBLIC TRANSPORT: If you’re coming from Paris to Mont St Michel by public transport, the best option is to catch the train to Rennes and then get the bus from the Rennes train station to Mont St Michel town.
There are quite a few TGV trains each day between Paris Montparnasse and Rennes, that can be as fast as 90 minutes. There are four buses from Rennes each day, that are timed to meet particular TGV trains. You can see the schedule here.
The bus will drop you at the Mont Saint Michel car park and from there you can catch the free bus shuttle to the island, or it’s about a 30 minute walk.
When you’re coming back to catch the bus for your return from Mont Saint Michel to Paris, leave yourself enough time to wait in the queue for the shuttle bus (or be prepared to walk, to guarantee how long it will take).
When is Mont Saint Michel open?
The general area around Mont Saint Michel is open all the time, in the same way that any town or natural bay would be. So, early in the morning or after dark, you can wander around and explore the region.
In fact, seeing as many tourists come just for a day trip, I think morning is the best time to see the streets of the island town. And sunrise and sunset are the most beautiful times of the day to get views of the island with the bay and surrounding natural areas.
The highlight of Mont Saint Michel – the abbey – does have opening times, though.
From 2 January to 30 April, it’s open every day from 09:30 – 18:00.
From 2 May to 31 August, it’s open every day from 09:00 – 19:00.
From 1 September to 31 December, it’s open every day from 09:30 – 18:00.
How much does it cost to visit Mont Saint Michel?
It is free to visit the general Mont Saint Michel area, including the town on the island. The shuttle bus that runs between the main parking lot and the island is also free.
But there is a cost to visit the Mont Saint Michel Abbey. Admission to the abbey is €10 for adults and €8 for concession.
Where to stay at Mont St Michel
When it comes to accommodation at Mont St Michel, there are three locations to consider. Do you want to stay on the island itself, in the mainland town, or in a different nearby town?
The benefit of the island is that you are staying in the heart of the site, surrounded by the history, with a unique experience. However, the accommodation here is expensive and many of the rooms are actually quite small because of the limited space. Still, the best hotels in Mont Saint Michel island are Auberge Saint Pierre, or Les Terrasses Poulard, or La Vieille Auberge.
Just a little but further away is the town of Beauvoir, where you can still easily access Mont Saint Michel but you’ll get much cheaper prices for accommodation. If you don’t mind a 20 minute walk to the bus station, I would recommend Le Beauvoir.