A mystical island one thousand years old, disappearing and reappearing with the tides, built on instruction from an angel in a dream… Mont St-Michel is one of those places that doesn’t quite seem real… and is all the more incredible because it is. A tidal island just off the coast of Normandy with a breathtaking stone abbey rising above its picturesque fortified medieval village, like a fairytale castle rising up from the sea, Mont St-Michel celebrates its millennial birthday this year. And there’s a reason why people have flocked to the small island to experience its magic for the past thousand years, and why they will want to continue to visit Mont St-Michel in 2023, and for hundreds of years to come.
In the early 8th century, the bishop of a coastal village in Normandy had a dream that would change the course of history.
Bishop Aubert of Avranches claimed that the Archangel Michael had come to him in his dream, and ordered that an abbey be built atop the island just off the coast. Beginning in the year 1023, generations of dukes of Normandy and French kings supported the construction of the Mont Saint Michel abbey rising steadily up out of the sea. As it continued to grow, with ever more magnificent gothic turrets and towers being added, Mont Saint-Michel took on many different purposes.
Christian believers came from across Europe on religious pilgrimages along chemins de paradis, or “roads to paradise” to pay homage to the important holy site. The village’s fortified stone rampart walls kept out invading Vikings, and then English forces during the Hundred’s Years War, and even withstood a thirty year siege. Perhaps more than anything, the abbey’s crowning spire, rising an incredible 500 feet, shone like a beacon to intellectuals of the age, attracting some of the greatest minds of Europe to its rich library for centuries, making the Mont Saint Michel abbey a renowned center of learning. Later on, during the French Revolution and Napoleonic Empire, the Benedictine abbey was used as a prison.
Due to the significant restoration required after its turbulent time as a fortress and prison, Mont Saint-Michel was already recognized for its cultural and historical significance nearly 150 years ago, in 1874, when it was placed under the protective care of the French Historic Monuments Department.
Today, the island often known simply as Le Merveille, or “the Wonder,” welcomes over three million visitors a year into its steep village streets, lined with medieval homes now converted into restaurants, shops, and hotels. This year, those millions have included the French President, Emmanuel Macron, who was visiting Mont St Michel to commemorate the site’s millennial anniversary. French First Lady Brigitte Macron also visited the site, accompanied by U.S. First Lady Jill Biden.
How to get to Mont Saint-Michel
Named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979, Mont Saint-Michel is one of the most visited tourist sites in France, following only the Eiffel Tower, the Palace of Versailles, and the Louvre – an impressive feat considering all three of the other sites are located in Paris and are very easily accessible. Getting to Mont Saint-Michel is a bit more of a journey, but as millions demonstrate each year, it is one that is well worth it. However, Mont Saint-Michel’s popularity also means that visitors should carefully consider the best time to go and how to avoid the crowds in order to get the most out of their trip.
How to Get There:
Mont Saint-Michel is located roughly four hours from Paris, and can be accessed by car, guided tour bus, or by a combination of train and shuttle bus.
There are two different ways to drive to Mont Saint-Michel from Paris; either by taking the A13 highway towards Caen, then the A84 towards Avranches Rennes, or by taking the A11 towards Le Mans, followed by the A81 towards Fougères, and finally the A84 to Caen.
Visitors can also take the TGV train from Paris to the city of Rennes in Brittany, leaving from the Paris Montparnasse train station, which takes roughly 2 hours. From Rennes, visitors can then take a shuttle bus roughly another hour to travel the rest of the way to Mont Saint-Michel. Bus tickets, which cost 15 euros, can be purchased online, at the Rennes train station, or on the bus itself.
Another option for accessing and exploring Mont Saint-Michel is to go with a guided tour company. For many tourists, especially those who wish to explore the island as a day trip from Paris, this is the ideal option. Guided tour companies offer chauffeured round trip transportation to and from Mont Saint-Michel via coach bus, as well as a walking tour through the village of Mont Saint-Michel and an entrance ticket and guided tour of the abbey of Mont St Michel.
No matter the mode of transportation, once visitors arrive, the mystical island is still a bit out of reach – cars (and coach buses) must park in Beauvoir, the village on the mainland, located roughly 3 kilometers from Mont Saint-Michel. (Parking lots were pushed further inland in a 2015 preservation effort designed to conserve the historic landscape of the area.) From the parking lots, follow signs for La Place des Navettes, where the free shuttle bus (called Passeurs) runs frequently from 7:30am to midnight, and takes visitors across the surrounding bay to the island of Mont Saint-Michel. Alternatively, visitors can also walk all the way to the island directly from the parking area.
Visitors who are handicapped or require special accommodations should note that unfortunately, given Mont Saint-Michel’s ancient origins and concentrated efforts by the French government to maintain its authenticity, the site is not handicap accessible. The shuttle bus stop is about half a mile from the parking lots, and the buses drop off visitors around a quarter mile away from the island itself. Once arrived on the island, there are also many (steep!) stone steps to the abbey at the top. Recent efforts to allow as much accessibility as possible for those in wheelchairs, can be seen here.
Best time to visit Le Mont Saint-Michel
After considering how best to arrive at Mont Saint-Michel, visitors also need to reflect on when exactly to plan their trip. There are several different factors that could influence this decision: the first is the most obvious, avoiding crowds. The site’s massive popularity coupled with its ancient streets and accommodations make visiting the island extremely crowded during the peak tourist season of June, July, and August. While you still may not have the island all to yourself, visitors are advised to travel to Mont Saint-Michel on weekdays rather than on the weekend, and to come either early in the morning or in the late afternoon or evening, rather than late morning and early afternoon. Consider coming in March/April, or September/October, when the island will still have good weather, but be much less crowded. It’s also helpful to book tickets in advance, although they are also available onsite.
The other factor to consider is a bit less common for organizing most travel, however it is of particular importance when planning a visit to Le Mont Saint-Michel. Visitors who wish to fully experience the magic of the tidal island, and witness the sea surround its rampart walls at high tide, as well as watch as land is once more revealed when the tides pull away, should make note of the tidal schedule in order to take in the full process.
Where to stay at Mont Saint-Michel
It’s worth setting some time aside to travel to Mont Saint-Michel, particularly if you want to see the tidal island at both high and low tides, and explore the village and the abbey. Many decide that a day trip is simply not enough, and that they would like to extend their trip for at least one night.
The biggest question when planning an overnight trip to Mont Saint-Michel is whether to stay on the island, or nearby. The difference comes primarily down to price point – because there are few options for accommodation on the island itself, the cost tends to be higher than staying in accommodations in the surrounding area. That said, spending the night on Mont Saint-Michel means being able to enjoy the ancient island after the crowds depart, spending the night in a historic place and having the time to experience the full extent of the tides – experiences that some find well worth the extra cost. There are many different accommodation options both on and off the island, however, the most famous is undoubtedly the Auberge de la Mère Poulard, a historic inn and restaurant in the heart of the medieval village, begun in 1888 by Annette Poulard, just twenty years old at the time.
Things To Do in Mont Saint-Michel
Once arrived on this mystical island, visitors won’t lack in things to do. Here are just a few of our top picks:
Walk along the Ancient Rampart Walls
Mont Saint-Michel transcends centuries, and a walk along the ancient stone rampart walls that surround the island will take visitors back through time to the Middle Ages, when the island was a fortress and its thick walls protected against invading armies. Today, visitors can see the seven ancient watchtowers used as lookouts against enemies, as well as take advantage of beautiful, sweeping views across the Bay of Saint Michel. Visitors can also use the rampart walls to reach the abbey at the top of the Mount, and watch the tides flow in and out of the bay.
Visit the Abbey
Just as religious faithfuls have done for a thousand years, today’s visitors can make the climb to the famous abbey at the top of Mont Saint-Michel. The Abbaye du Mont Saint-Michel is an architectural marvel due to its challenging location on a tidal island, and its construction during the Middle Ages. Despite limited resources and the constant opposition of changing tides, the abbey inspired by an angel in a dream was built over 600 years, between the 10th and the 16th centuries, one stone at a time, and became a prime example of 13th century gothic architecture. The abbey’s church, cloisters, and sanctuary are spaces of exceptional calm and serenity with hidden gardens and staircases that lead to expansive views across the sea, while spacious chambers like the Salle des Chevaliers, where noble knights were received, hint at the many different roles the abbey has played throughout history.
La Grande Rue
La Grande Rue is the main street in the Medieval village of Mont Saint-Michel. Its winding cobblestone path is lined with homes from the 15th and 16th centuries, which have now been converted into restaurants, shops, and hotels. After strolling through the boutiques, to avoid the crowds which gather along La Grande Rue, and make discoveries of your own, visitors should take the time to wander off the main road and down the ancient side streets. There they can find museums detailing the island’s fascinating history, like the Musée Historique, which houses ancient weapons, Medieval torture instruments, secret dungeons, and paintings and sculptures that show what life was like during the early days of the Mount as an active fortress, prison, and abbey. Down still another side street visitors can discover the historic home of a 14th century knight, or down yet another, the Musée Maritime, which educates visitors about the unique environment of the area, its preservation, and the highest tides in Europe.
Normandy Regional Attractions
Visitors to Mont Saint-Michel who would like to extend their trip should keep in mind all of the attractions that the Normandy and Brittany regions have to offer. The surrounding area boasts everything from seaside resort towns, to quaint fishing villages, dramatic seaside landscapes, an impressive military history, and historic towns dating from the Middle Ages – in short, something for everyone.
Tips for Visiting Mont Saint-Michel
Go on an authentic guided journey across the bay
One of the most exceptional things about visiting a place that is one thousand years old, is that travelers today can still have the same experience as people who made the ancient pilgrimage to Mont Saint-Michel centuries ago. Mont Saint-Michel tourism offers official guides to safely cross the bay by foot, just as the pilgrims did hundreds of years ago. Many faithful still make this journey on September 29th, Saint Michael’s Day, when Mont Saint-Michel celebrates the archangel who inspired the construction of the island’s abbey. The journey across the bay by foot takes roughly two hours, and offers unique views of the bay and island. It’s important to note that it is NOT advisable to attempt to cross the bay without an official guide for safety reasons – tides are unpredictable for those not familiar with the area, and the bay is also prone to dangerous quicksand.
Experience Mont Saint-Michel by Night
During the summer months of July and August, Mont Saint-Michel is illuminated every evening (except Sundays) by the Chronicles of the Mount sound and light show, which features video projections that create an immersive experience plunging visitors into the island’s history as they stroll through the medieval streets to the abbey at the top. Visitors can enjoy the show from 7pm until Midnight.
Frequently Asked Questions – Mont Saint-Michel
Why is Mont Saint-Michel so famous?
Mont Saint-Michel represents an incredible feat of architecture and an astonishingly well-preserved piece of France’s history in a beautiful, natural setting.
How long does it take to walk around Mont St Michel?
It’s best to plan on spending at least 3-5 hours onsite to get the most out of your time at Mont Saint-Michel. This should give you plenty of time to explore the town and visit the abbey, as well as see the changing tides.
Is Mont St Michel worth seeing?
OUI! Mont Saint-Michel has been one of the top tourist attractions in the world for hundreds of years, and for good reason. Just make sure to follow our tips to avoid the crowds and to get the full experience of the island at high and low tide.
Is Mont Saint-Michel a day trip?
From Paris, the trip to Mont Saint-Michel is 4 hours, so it’s a bit of a longer journey. However, it is still entirely possible to visit as a full day length trip or, even better, extend your travel into an overnight stay.
How much does it cost to visit Mont Saint-Michel?
Adult tickets to the abbey cost €10; visitors should also factor in the cost of their transportation (gas, train tickets/guided tour), and whether they plan to spend the night on or near the island.
Katherine Miller has lived most of her adult life in either Paris or New York, and her world has become a beautiful mélange of French and American culture, a mixture she loves sharing with those who also harbor her passion and curiosity for travel, language, and culture.