Visiting Mont Saint-Michel: 5 Top Attractions
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Rising out of the sea like a beacon, Mont Saint-Michel is a soul-inspiring sight. The magnificent Abbey of Mont Saint-Michel is designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site and ranks high on the list of top attractions in Normandy. Mont Saint-Michel was also an important destination on the Chemin de Saint Jaques, the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela in Spain.
The abbey is perched on the highest point of the rocky islet in the Bay of Mont Saint-Michel, while the island's medieval village is surrounded by ancient defense walls. At high tide, Mont Saint-Michel appears from afar as a mystical island. At low tide, it is possible to walk around the island.
Legend has it that Archbishop Aubert of Avranches founded an abbey here in 708 after the Archangel Michael appeared to him in a vision, making this an important place of pilgrimage. Medieval pilgrims arrived by foot, crossing the Bay of Mont-Michel at low tide, sometimes challenged by unexpected riptides and quicksands.
Although getting to Mont Saint-Michel from Paris may not present the dangers it did to medieval pilgrims, it is still an effort. It takes about 3.5 hours to drive from Paris to Mont Saint-Michel or about the same amount of time by public transportation. For many tourists, it's preferable to take an organized day-trip excursion from Paris.
Mont Saint-Michel is one of the most fascinating heritage sites in Europe, rich in history and full of wonder. Visitors are dazzled by this exquisite Gothic landmark, a gem of medieval architecture, that presides over a scenic coastline.
It's recommended to spend at least four hours to tour the abbey's cloister, refectory, and ramparts; have lunch; and see the powerful tides shift the landscape between water and sand.
See also: Where to Stay in Mont Saint-Michel
1. Abbaye du Mont Saint-Michel
The Abbey of Mont Saint-Michel is an amazing feat of construction, with its Gothic spires soaring 155 meters above the sea. The loftiest part of the monument, known as "La Merveille" ("The Marvel"), is a masterpiece of medieval art. It is even more miraculous considering the difficulties of bringing building materials across the Bay of Saint-Michel.
In spite of great technical challenges, the abbey was built between the 8th century (Carolingian period) and 16th centuries in various architectural styles. The buildings dating to the 13th century best express the serene ambience of the abbey.
To arrive at the abbey, visitors and pilgrims must begin at the old gates, walk through the village and ascend 200 meters. Then there are 350 steps up the "Grande Degré" (Grande Staircase) to reach the entrance of the abbey.
The lowest floor has peaceful gardens and a spacious hall called the "Aumônerie," which was a dormitory for pilgrims in the 13th century.
On the middle floor is the vaulted "Salle des Chevaliers" (Knights' Hall), where noble knights were received, and the "Crypte des Gros Piliers" (Crypt of Large Pilars).
The most magnificent area of the abbey (La Merveille) is on the second floor: the Cloisters, Refectory, and the Abbey Church. Designed to inspire a sense of tranquility, the Cloisters feature 220 graceful granite columns in double alternating rows.
The splendid Eglise Saint-Michel (Abbey Church), begun in 1020, has a majestic Romanesque nave and an ornate 15th- to 16th-century Flamboyant Gothic choir. The sanctuary astonishes visitors with its breathtaking beauty and inspiring spiritual ambience.
From the Abbey Church, the "Escalier de Dentelle," (staircase) leads up to the Grande Terrasse de l'Ouest (West Terrace) which affords spectacular panoramic sea views.
The island of Mont Saint-Michel transports visitors to the world of the Middle Ages. The entire island is a pedestrian zone, and most of the stone buildings date from the 13th-16th centuries.
Typical of the medieval era, the island is surrounded by ancient walls (ramparts) and bastions that were designed to protect against invasions. In fact, during the Hundred Years War, the island of Mont Saint-Michel was an impenetrable fortress thanks to the defense walls.
Tourists can take a walk around the "Chemin des Remparts" (Ramparts Pathway) to enjoy the scenic views. Visitors can also walk out onto the observation deck of the Tour du Nord (North Tower), a 13th-century watchtower, which is a good place to watch the tide flow in and out of the Bay of Mont Saint-Michel.
To arrive at the ramparts, enter the first two gates that provide access into the medieval village: the Porte de l'Avancée and the Porte du Boulevard. Then after crossing the Porte du Roy drawbridge, a right turn leads to the Chemin des Remparts. From the Porte du Roy, continue walking through the outer walls of the ramparts.
The immense stone ramparts circle the edge of the island and feature battlements that were used to fight off invaders. From many points along the Chemin des Remparts, there are sweeping panoramas of the Bay of Saint-Michel.
3. Grand Rue
The island's only street that runs parallel to the ramparts, this cobblestone pathway takes visitors through the medieval village of Mont Saint-Michel. Tourists enter the island of Mont Saint-Michel at the old Burgher's Guardroom, which now houses the Tourist Office, and then walk through the Boulevard Gate and then the King's Gate to arrive at the Grand Rue.
This charming street is lined by tightly packed stone houses of the 15th and 16th centuries, which now are occupied by souvenir shops, snack bars, cafés, restaurants, and hotels, including the Auberge de La Mère Poulard, which is famous for its omelettes and butter cookies.
Tourists will stroll past the 15th-century parish church, the Eglise Saint-Pierre. On a side street behind the church is the Musée Historique (History Museum), which displays a collection of old weapons, paintings, and sculptures that gives insight into the historic prisons and monks' lives of Mont Saint-Michel.
The Musée de la Mer et de l'Écologie (Museum of the Sea and Ecology) immerses visitors into the maritime world that surrounds Mont Saint-Michel. Exhibits educate visitors about the project to restore the maritime character of Mont Saint-Michel, as well as the environmental aspects of the Bay of Mont Saint-Michel, which has the highest tides in Europe. The museum also displays a collection of historic model boats.
Another noteworthy attraction along the Grand Rue is the Archéoscope museum. This unique tourist attraction presents a multimedia show about the construction and history of Mont Saint-Michel Abbey. A three-dimensional model of Mont Saint-Michel, as well as special lighting and sound effects make for an entertaining experience.
Also worth visiting is the Logis Tiphaine, the 14th-century residence of Bertrand du Guesclin (a knight and constable of the King of France's armies during the Hundred Years War) and his wife Tiphaine de Raguenel (an astrologer). Now a museum open to the public, this well-preserved historic house contains medieval furniture and artifacts.
The Grand Rue ends at the Grand Degré, a flight of steps leading up to the entrance of the Saint-Michel Abbey.
4. Mont Saint-Michel Pilgrimages
Christian pilgrims have made the arduous journey to Mont Saint-Michel since the 8th century. Known as the "Wonder of the West," the Abbey of Mont Saint-Michel continues to be a sacred destination for modern-day pilgrims.
For centuries, pilgrims have completed the final stretch of their pilgrimage, the crossing of the Bay of Mont Saint-Michel, by foot. It's important to know that the bay has an extreme tidal range (15 kilometers in each direction). The high tide turns Mont Saint-Michel into an island for about one hour each day. At low tide, it is possible to walk across the bay's sandy basin.
Pilgrims can hire an accredited (licensed) guide to lead them across the Bay of Mont Saint-Michel. It is not advisable to attempt the journey without a guide, for safety reasons. Quicksand can create hazardous conditions for those who are not familiar with the terrain.
Walking across the sandy bay to Mont Saint-Michel takes about two hours. For those who would like to experience the journey of medieval pilgrims, they can walk 13 kilometers from the village of Genêts or the village of Vains to Mont Saint-Michel. Accredited guides are available to lead pilgrims on various types of pilgrimage routes.
Many pilgrims make their spiritual journey at the end of September on Saint Michael's Day, which celebrates the Archangel Michael. Several religious events mark the occasion. On the nearest Sunday to Saint Michael's Day, a solemn mass is celebrated in the Abbey Church, and on September 29th (Saint Michael's Day), the Abbey Church holds morning prayers and mass.
5. La Mère Poulard
This auberge is a legendary institution on Mont Saint-Michel, begun in 1888 by Annette and Victor Poulard. Annette was only twenty at the time, but she was a good cook and became fondly known as La Mère Poulard (Mom Poulard). The inn welcomed pilgrims as well as visitors who came to sample La Mère Poulard's gourmet meals.
Today, the Auberge de La Mère Poulard includes the historic auberge and restaurant, which have been renovated yet retain the building's traditional ambience and charm. The Restaurant La Mère Poulard serves Mom Poulard's culinary specialty: the omelette, which is made following a recipe that is kept secret to this day.
La Mère Poulard was also well known for "biscuits" (butter cookies made with the finest Normandy butter), still produced and sold at the Biscuiterie La Mère Poulard boutique, which is located next door on the Grand Rue.
Address: 18 Grande Rue, Mont Saint-Michel
Where to Stay in Mont Saint-Michel for Sightseeing
Spending the night on Mont Saint-Michel allows visitors to experience an enchanting medieval realm without the tourist crowds. The sounds of the sea are more audible and the narrow cobblestone streets appear more picturesque in the quiet of morning or evening.
We recommend choosing accommodation within the walled medieval village on the island of Mont Saint-Michel. However, the more affordable accommodations are on the mainland, which is about 2.5 kilometers from Mont Saint-Michel.
- In a historic building on the Grand Rue of Mont Saint-Michel village, the famous Auberge de La Mère Poulard features recently renovated guest rooms decorated with traditional touches. The rooms offer bay and village views. The auberge has a restaurant that is famous for its omelettes.
- The Hôtel Le Mouton Blanc occupies a renovated 14th-century building near the Abbey of Mont Saint-Michel. The cozy guest rooms feature splendid views of the bay, the abbey, and the village. The hotel's casual restaurant serves classic French cuisine.
- About two kilometers outside the walled medieval village, the three-star Hôtel Gabriel provides a free shuttle service to Mont Saint-Michel. Guest rooms feature cheerful contemporary-style decor. There are several restaurants nearby.
- The four-star Hôtel Mercure Mont-Saint-Michel is also located two kilometers outside of the medieval village on the route that leads to Mont Saint-Michel. This modern hotel offers a gourmet restaurant and spacious guest rooms at an affordable price.
- In the town of Beauvoir about five kilometers from the medieval Mont Saint-Michel village, Les Vieilles Digues is a budget-friendly bed and breakfast hotel. The hotel is surrounded by lovely gardens, and accommodations include a generous buffet breakfast.
- The Ibis Pontorson Baie Du Mont Saint Michel is located 10 kilometers from Mont Saint-Michel in the town of Saint-Georges-de-Gréhaigne near the Pontorson train station. A shuttle bus runs from Pontorson to Mont Saint-Michel. The three-star accommodations include stylish modern guest rooms, a barbecue restaurant, and a 24-hour snack bar.
Tips and Tours: How to Make the Most of Your Visit to Mont Saint Michel
Driving to Mont Saint-Michel:
- The drive from Paris to Mont Saint-Michel takes about four hours. Visitors must park 2.5 kilometers from Mont Saint-Michel in the village of Beauvoir on the mainland. From the parking lot, a shuttle bus drops visitors off 400 meters from the medieval gates that provide entry into the village of Mont Saint-Michel.
Tours to Mont Saint-Michel from Paris:
- The four-hour journey from Paris to Mont Saint-Michel by car is tiring for the driver. For a more relaxing trip, try a guided excursion such as the Mont Saint-Michel Day Trip from Paris, which includes a chauffeured ride through the Normandy countryside, lunch, and a walking tour through the village and abbey.
- The Abbey of Mont Saint-Michel is not accessible to visitors with impaired mobility. There is a 200-meter pedestrian path to the top of the mount and then a staircase of 350 steps.
Attend a Concert:
- Visitors can feel the soul of Mont Saint-Michel when attending a musical concert at this sublime venue. The Via Aeterna religious music festival takes place in September or October at the Abbey of Mont Saint Michel and other venues in the region. The renowned Festival Grandes Marées presents a series of jazz concerts in Jullouville (about a one-hour drive from Mont Saint-Michel) at the end of July and in early August.
Experience the Abbey at Night:
- In July and August, tourists can enjoy a magical summer evening stroll through the abbey. "Les Nocturnes" nighttime openings are organized by the Centre des Monuments National. Visitors are delighted by dazzling sound and lighting effects, as well as video projections that highlight the beauty of the abbey's architecture.
Plan Ahead for a Pilgrimage:
- If you aspire to arrive by foot, first inquire about the tides. It is important to pay close attention to the tide schedule as it is extremely dangerous to venture into the bay when the water is rising. During spring tide days, visitors must cross two hours before the tides. Also note that walking across the bay is best done in bare feet.
Soak Up the Spirituality of the Abbey:
- Visitors may attend a religious service to discover the spiritual ambience of Mont Saint-Michel. Mass is celebrated in the Abbey Church from Tuesday through Saturday at 12noon and on Sunday at 11:15am. Vespers services take place Tuesday through Saturday at 6:20pm in the crypt of the Abbey Church.
Celebrate Christmas at Mont Saint-Michel:
- Christmas Week (Semaine de Noël) at Mont Saint-Michel is a special time, and the village is decorated with festive lights. Christmas Eve (December 24th) is celebrated with vigils at 10:30pm and a Mass at 11:30pm at the Abbey Church, followed by hot chocolate served in the Refectory. Mass is celebrated twice on Christmas Day (December 25th) at 8am and 11:30am. A solemn vesper service is held on the evening of Christmas at 6:30pm. Religious celebrations continue each day until January 1st.
Getting to Mont Saint-Michel
- The drive from Paris to Mont Saint-Michel takes about 3.5 hours. Another option is the TGV train (rapid-velocity train) from Paris to Rennes, which takes 1.5 hours, and then a 30-minute taxi or 50-minute bus ride to Mont Saint-Michel.
- If arriving by car, park in the parking lot which is located on the mainland two-and-a-half kilometers from Mont Saint-Michel. From the parking lot, a shuttle bus drops visitors off 400 meters from the entrance gates to Mont Saint-Michel.
- If planning to arrive by foot, first inquire about the tides. It is important to pay close attention to the schedule of the tides as it is extremely dangerous to venture into the bay when the water is rising. During spring tide days, visitors must cross two hours before the tides. Also note that walking across the bay is best done in bare feet.
- Besides driving, there are several other ways of getting to Mont Saint-Michel by public transportation. Learn about the different options and other practical information in our Best Ways to Get There guide, which discusses the routes from Paris to Mont Saint-Michel.