Le Mont Saint Michel is undoubtedly one of the most iconic and most recognised medieval silhouettes France offers. The Abbey sitting atop an island mount, once only accessible during low tide, makes for some beautiful photo opportunities no matter what time of the day or year.
Located in Normandy on the border of Brittany, Le Mont Saint Michel was founded by the Bishop of Avranches in 708, allegedly after Saint Michael came to him and commanded that he build a monastery on the rock. Over the centuries it has been a church, the objective of pilgrims, a fort and a prison. Now it is one of those must-visit destinations in the northern part of France.
Since the history is extensive and way more than could be given justice here, there are a couple of links at the end if you wish to find out more prior to your trip—which we do recommend to get the most out of your visit.
Most visitors will take a day trip from various locations including Paris, so here are some tips to your visit to Le Mont Saint Michel.
Tip 1 – Overnight It If You Have Time
You will get much more out of your visit if you arrange to stay overnight. This allows a full day of visiting the Abbey and roaming the alleys, stores and museums. Then, once the tourist buses start to leave, you begin to get a deeper sense of the commune in a less hectic and crowded circumstance. Your visit can be a great deal more relaxed since the community is not very large.
There are a few hotels within the walls as well as not too far away on the mainland. If you are planning to stay on the island:
- Make sure you book early.
- Ask about the preferential parking area for overnight guests—closest to the island although you still need to take the shuttle bus.
- The pictures you see on the various hotel booking sites don’t necessarily reflect what you get.
- Don’t expect five-star, even though pricing may suggest you should.
- Rooms are small, very small in most cases, although the hotel we stayed in was very well renovated, clean and pleasant.
- “Rampart views” usually mean you have a view of stairs or an alleyway.
- Minimise what you take; small cobble stoned alleyways, usually only stairs and little spare space in the rooms does not bode well if you need to drag around four large suitcases.
Extra Hint: We based ourselves in Cancale for a week, a coastal town in Brittany about 45 minutes away and booked one night at Le Mont Saint Michel during the middle of the stay. This allowed us to leave all our major bags and carry only a small backpack of overnight needs each. If you do not have the advantage of leaving luggage elsewhere, if travelling by car, and it is secure (your luggage is not visible) leave big bags in the car and take only valuables.
Tip 2 - Go Early
A tour of the Abbey is of course a no-brainer—it is, after all, the reason the community exists. It is today an active Abbey, which has also served as a fort and prison over the centuries. The Abbey is open to visitors from 9:00am to 7:00pm from May to August and 9:30am to 6:00pm from September to April.
The main piece of advice we can provide is go early. We met our guide at 9:00am at the car park. Even if you are unable to check in to your overnight accommodation, all the hotels will store any bags you bring for the day.
The many day-tour buses start arriving at between 9:00 and 9:30am and steadily seem to accumulate over the morning, meaning the crowds just get bigger and deeper the later you leave it.
Tip 3 - Get A Guide
It is definitely worth arranging a guided tour around the Abbey, private if you can, even though audio guides are available at the entrance. The advantages of having a private guide are firstly a pre-purchased ticket and VIP skip-the-line option. The skip-the-line addition was only a marginal extra fee and worth every penny. The other is just the ability to ask deeper questions as you stroll through the various areas and levels. The tourism office provides a list of qualified and regulated guides at the Office of Tourism for Le Mont Saint Michel (https://www.ot-montsaintmichel.com/index.htm?lang=en) which is how we arranged ours.
Tip 4 – Eating: Lunch & Dinner
Lunch is chaos. With the tourist buses in over the period, almost every single eating option has been descended upon. Making reservations is a little bit of potluck. Although they are certainly honoured, whether you get a table of any consequence would be a roll of the dice. If there is any advice it is again eat early (at or slightly before midday) or eat a little later (after 1:30pm). We had a pleasant lunch at the brasserie-style La Vieille Auberge, which was very busy, a little chaotic and served good food. Definitely try for a table on the terrace, and nothing makes lunch better than a lovely bottle of red.
There are a few nice bistros with great views out over the bay if the day is pleasant. Don’t be surprised with the service being efficient and practical, as most of the restaurants rely on having two to three sittings per lunch catering to hungry tourists. You will definitely not be thrown out, and you can enjoy a long lazy lunch if you wish but have no expectation of being pampered.
For pre-dinner drinks there are a few options, including Restaurant la Croix Blanche, where we were able to secure a very pleasant table with great views overlooking the bay.
Evening dining is a very different experience. Book your table; we were recommended the restaurant in Hotel Du Guesclin, which was great, with excellent staff that clearly enjoyed the evening “staying” crowd over the “in for a few hours’ lunch only” crowd. The suggested dish was the local lamb, which is essentially salted from the inside since it grazes on the bay weeds and grasses, which are heavily infused by sea salt. And after having had it, it was definitely saltier than your average mutton chop.
Tip 5 - Museums & Sights
The Abbey is the most well-known of sights in the town, however there are a number of other small museums that can be explored. You can pre-purchase a four-museum ticket, which will gain you access to all and should take approximately two hours to wander through. It’s a nice afternoon experience once you’ve seen the Abbey and enjoyed lunch. These museums are ok, but don’t expect the Louvre, and most have a fair number of stairs to negotiate.
At low tide you can also take a stroll over the sand flats around the island, but do heed the notices around the tide times as it can come in quickly and unexpectedly.
Le Mont Saint Michel is busy all the time, so be prepared to battle crowds in one form or another. It is, however, worth it. The medieval feel will not likely change any time soon and doing the overnight allows you explore the commune with ease and a sense of going back in time.