48 Hours in Mont Saint Michel, France: A Guide

Mont Saint Michel in Normandy, Northern France, is a tidal island and home to a small commune of people.

Mont Saint Michel is a small tidal island located just off the coast of Normandy in France, about an hour from both Rennes and Saint Malo and two hours from Honfleur. Now one of the most iconic landmarks in France, it has been a location of great significance for centuries as a pilgrimage site for Christians looking to visit the Benedictine Abbey and today, millions of people are still visiting.

The History of Mont Saint Michel

Mont Saint-Michel has a rich and fascinating history that dates back to prehistoric times and was later used as a fortress by the Romans. In the 6th century, according to legend, the island was first visited by the Archangel Michael, who appeared to the Bishop of Avranches and instructed him to build a church on the island. By the 8th century, a small group of monks established a monastery on the island, although the Abbey that you see today was not completed until the 10th century when it officially became a Benedictine Abbey and one of the most important religious sites in Europe.

Fast-forward to the 1300-1400’s during the Hundred Years’ War between France and England, when it served as a strategic stronghold and military fortress for the French, while during the French Revolution, the abbey was once again closed and used as a prison.

After the war, Mont Saint Michel continued to be a place of pilgrimage and workshop, but it was also during this time that it became a popular tourist destination. The Romanesque-Gothic abbey was restored and renovated in the 19th century and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the most visited attractions in France. 

It has also been said that Mont Saint Michel was the inspiration for both the castle in the animated movie, Tangled, and Minas Tirith, the capital city of Gondor in Lord of the Rings.

How to get to Mont Saint Michel

If you are travelling by road, Saint Michel is clearly signposted when you reach the A84. The island itself is car-free but there is a car park with 4,000 spaces close by on the mainland. Just be mindful that while this sounds like a lot, with around 2.5 million visitors each year, these spots fill up fast.

From the car park you can either take the free shuttle bus from just outside the tourist information centre, which runs throughout the day from 7:30 am – midnight, or you can walk across the walkway which will take around 20-40 minutes. 

Free shuttle bus to Mont Saint Michel

The shuttle bus running across to Mont Saint Michel

If you are travelling by train, head for Pontorson station which is around 9km away where you can pick up a shuttle bus that drops you off around 300m from Mont Saint Michel.

Travelling by Motorhome

For those travelling in their motorhomes,  on the approach to Mont Saint Michel you are looking for signs for P8 parking which is dedicated to campers and while it does allow for 24 hours parking it also clearly states that no parking overnight is permitted for sleeping. It may also be important to note that the official visitor car parks only accept motorhomes that are less than 8 metres long. From the parking area there is also a shuttle bus service that will take you across to the island and this is included in the price you pay for parking, which varies from free to 27 euros depending on the length of stay and the time of year.

Where to stay near Mont Saint Michel

If you are actually looking to stay on Mont Saint Michel, consider staying at the Auberge Saint Pierre. This charming little hotel is rich in history, with exposed beams, wooden floors and traditional lead-glass windows, plus a beautiful courtyard terrace to enjoy drinks or breakfast. It would be the ideal place to spend a night or two.

Away from the island, but close enough to either walk or cycle in, Gites Bellevue, offers self-catering accommodation in the heart of the countryside. Therefore, if you are looking to spend longer in the area this could be the perfect choice for a relaxing family holiday.

Motorhome Campsite Parking

Finally, for those touring France in their campervans or motorhomes and looking for an aire to park up at for a few days, Aire de Camping Car Beauvoir just down the road from Mont Saint Michel, is spacious, has both hardstanding and grass pitches, electric hook up is available, water and a chemical waste disposal. 

48 hours in Mont Saint Michel Itinerary

Once on the island, Mont Saint Michel is easy to navigate by foot, although there are some steep hills and plenty of steps to climb, which is something you may need to consider ahead of time.

Day 1 in Mont Saint Michel

The drawbridge entrance to Mont Saint Michel

The Abbey of Mont Saint Michel

Once you have picked up a pastry at one of the local bakeries, head to the abbey, a spectacular medieval architectural masterpiece, has become one of the most popular tourist attractions in France, with millions of visitors each year. The abbey has a rich history dating back to the 8th century and Aubert, Bishop of Avranches and has been recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1979.

The original church was built in the Romanesque style and was dedicated to Saint Michael the Archangel, and patron saint of warriors. Over time, the church has expanded and has been transformed into the abbey you see today, where monks and nuns still live and work.

Built on a rocky island, its design takes advantage of the natural landscape and with the expansion came a fusion of different styles so the abbey now has both Romanesque and Gothic features with spires rising up 155 metres above sea level.  A fantastic feat, given that the building materials would have had to cross the Bay of Saint-Michel.

To reach the abbey, you will need to walk through the village and climb around 200m plus around 350 steps up the Grand Staircase to reach the entrance of the abbey.

The church is the centrepiece of the abbey and is a stunning example of Gothic architecture. The nave is flanked by rows of columns and has a ribbed vaulted ceiling and a beautiful rose window. The choir is the most ornate part of the church, with elaborate carvings and statues. 

The cloister is a tranquil courtyard surrounded by arcades and was once the centre of monastic life on the island where monks would contemplate and meditate while the refectory has a barrel-vaulted ceiling and is adorned with murals depicting scenes from the Bible.

It is still an important religious site today, with many people making the pilgrimage to the island to pray to Saint Michael and has also inspired many artists and writers over the centuries, making it the subject of many paintings, poems and novels.

Wandering the ramparts around the abbey

The Ramparts

The ancient walls, constructed over centuries, have been an integral part of the abbey’s defense. Built in the 13th and 14th centuries, these fortifications were added to protect the village from potential invaders and were reinforced with towers and gates. 

The building of the ramparts, using local granite, took place in stages, with each new addition adding to the Island’s defensive capabilities and withstand heavy artillery fire. The early sections were constructed using the dry-stone technique, a method popular during the Roman era, while the later sections of the ramparts were constructed using a mix of dry-stone and mortar. They are not just a stunning example of medieval architecture, but also a symbol of the island’s rich history and cultural heritage. 

To get to the ramparts, enter the medieval village and cross the drawbridge. From here you can either turn right to the Chemin des Remparts, or continue walking through the outer walls to  the Porte du Roy.

Wandering the rampart pathway today, will give you not only a sense of the incredible workmanship involved in building such a structure but also offers an amazing view across the island, out to sea and the surrounding countryside. You can also walk onto the observation deck of the Tour du Nord (North Tower), the 13th century watchtower and watch the tide come in or recede out of the Bay.

Lunch at an institution on the island

Mont Saint Michel is famous for its fluffy omelettes, perhaps because the most famous restaurant on the island, La Mère Poulard, has been offering them as a speciality since 1888. The omelets are cooked on an open fire and served with a crispy exterior and a soft creamy centre.

La Mère Poulard restaurant known for its omlettes

The Gabriel Tower

The Gabriel Tower along with the quay are two of the most iconic landmarks on the island. Situated on the western side of the island, it is from here that you will get the most stunning views of the surrounding bay and nearby coastline.

The Gabriel Tower is a tall, cylindrical tower, built in the 17th century as part of the island’s defences and was named after the archangel Gabriel. Since that time it has become a symbol of Mont Saint Michel and is now a popular spot for visitors to take photos.

Just below the tower is the quay, a bustling area that is home to a range of restaurants, cafes and shops and is also the departure point for boats taking people on guided tours of the bay. One highlight here is the food market that takes place every morning and offers a range of fresh seafood, local cheeses and other regional specialities. 

The Grand Rue

The main and only street, also known as the Grand Rue, is a charming and historic cobbled thoroughfare that runs through the heart of the island. This narrow cobblestone street is lined with medieval buildings and shops.

Dating back to the Middle Ages, the street was originally constructed to provide a route for pilgrims to reach the abbey. However, over time the street has become a hub of commercial activity as merchants set up shops and inns to cater for the needs of the pilgrims. Over time, the buildings became more elaborate and ornate, mixing styles to reflect the long and varied history of the island. One of the most striking features involves looking upwards towards the corbels, which are decorative stone brackets that support the upper floors of the buildings. These corbels are often intricately carved, adding to the unique charm of the street. As you wander along you will also notice several historic fountains, which were used for both drinking and washing during medieval times.

The Grand Rue in Mont Saint Michel is extremely crowded but picturesque

Today, the Grand Rue is lined with a variety of shops, restaurants and cafes as well as several museums and galleries.

While wandering the Grand Rue also look out for Venelle du Guet, also known as the ‘Ruelle des cocus’ of ‘Cuckold’s Alley’. This is the smallest street on the island and it is so narrow that you will struggle to walk next to someone, instead having to explore in single file. To find this little passageway, turn left in front of the Hotel La Croix Blanche.

Dinner away from the hustle and bustle of the island

The grass-fed salt-marsh lamb from the surrounding salt flats is a true local delicacy. The lamb is raised on a unique diet of samphire and sea aster, giving it a distinctive flavour. One of the best places to try this dish is at La Ferme Saint Michel where it is usually served roasted with seasonal vegetables and potatoes.

Day 2 in Mont Saint Michel

The island of Mont Saint Michel from the distance

St. Peter’s Church

Start day two by visiting St. Peter’s Church (Eglise Saint Pierre), a beautiful church situated on a rocky outcrop on the edge of Mont Saint Michel, that overlooks the sea. This church has a rich history dating back to the 11th century, making it one of the oldest structures on the island. The church was built in the Romanesque style and served as a place of worship for the monks who lived on the island. Not only was this church an important place of worship, it also served as a place of refuge for the inhabitants of the island during times of conflict and danger.

The church features a simple, yet elegant design, with thick walls, rounded arches and a sturdy bell tower. While the interior of the church is decorated with beautiful frescoes and murals, many dating back to the medieval period.

The History Museum

Tucked down a narrow street, behind the church, this museum houses 1000 years of history and covers the building of the abbey, the battles of the past and information on the Mont Saint Michel prison. There is also a vast collection of ancient weapons, torture instruments, the iron cage of Louis XI and many paintings and sculptures.

The Museum of the Sea and Ecology

This museum is an excellent choice for anyone interested in the ocean and the environment, where you can learn more about the diverse marine ecosystem of the waters surrounding Mont Saint Michel.

Home to a variety of exhibits and displays that showcase the marine life of the bay and the local fishermen who depend on it. One of the highlights is the large aquarium that houses a range of marine creatures, from colourful fish to giant crabs. You can also learn about the unique ecology on Mont Saint Michel, including how the tides affect this ecosystem, as well as the different types of plants and animals that can be found on the island.

Visitors can also wander the section dedicated to the history of fishing in the area, seeing examples of traditional fishing boats, tools and nets while learning about the different fishing techniques that have been used over the centuries. There is even a section on local cuisine, where you can learn more about the different types of seafood popular in the region.

A light lunch

Galettes are a savoury crepe and a staple of the region. They are typically filled with cheese, ham, eggs and vegetables and are a great option for a quick, cheap lunch. You can find several different galette shops around Mont Saint Michel and the surrounding area. One of the best on the island is La Sirène Lochet, which serves both galettes and sweet crepes.

The Logis Tiphaine Museum

The Logis Tiphaine Museum was once the historic residence of the Knight of Guesclin, and gives an insight into the life of one of France’s most famous knights. As 14th century nobleman, Bertrand du Guesclin, served as a military commander during the Hundred Years’ War, and his residence, which he shared with his wife, Tiphaine de Raguenel, a famous astrologer who used the stars to foretell the future of the world, is a testament to their legacy.

The residence is located on the western side of the island and is easily recognisable with its imposing stone walls and towers. You can explore the interior of the residence, which has been restored to its former glory. 

One of the highlights is the great hall, which was used for feasts and gatherings but is now decorated with intricate tapestries and features a large fireplace. Another is the armoury, home to a collection of medieval weapons, including swords, shields and suits of armour. You can also visit the bridal suite complete with a chastity belt dating back to the Middle Ages, the chapel and the small garden that has beautiful views out over the coast.

Looking up at the abbey on Mont Saint Michel

The Archeoscope

The Archescope is an immersive experience that brings to life the rich history and legends of this famous island. Located in the heart of the village, the Archeoscope gives you the chance to delve into the past and learn about the historical events that have taken place at Mont Saint Michel over the centuries.

Housed within a modern, purpose-built theatre, and using a range of multimedia technologies, the show, presented in both French and English, and includes a combination of live action footage, animation and special effects,  lasts around 35 minutes and takes you on a journey through history, from its earliest days as a place of worship to its role as a strategic military outpost during the Hundred Years’ War. There is also a section dedicated to the legend of the Archangel Michael. 

Purchase a local souvenir 

No trip to Mont Saint Michel is complete without trying the famous salted caramel. The caramel is made using local sea salt which gives it a unique flavour and texture. The caramel comes in various forms including as a sweet and as a sauce for ice cream. One of the best places to pick up some souvenirs is just off the island at Maison Pelerin.

A seafood dinner awaits

Being a coastal region, Mont Saint Michel has an abundance of fresh seafood. Here you can try mussels, scallops, oysters and other shellfish, all sourced locally. Le Pré-Salé, while well known for its lamb, is also a popular restaurant for those looking for a seafood platter to enjoy. 

Mussels a local speciality of Normandy

There are also several different restaurants just off the island that specialise in seafood, so if you are looking for a cheaper place to eat, head towards La Gréve for more reasonable priced menus.

Final thoughts on Mont Saint Michel

Mont Saint Michel is a unique and fascinating destination that is steeped in history and culture. The island’s stunning architecture and breathtaking views make it a must-see destination for anyone visiting Northern France. Whether you’re a history buff, an architecture enthusiast, or simply looking for a beautiful place to visit, Mont Saint Michel is definitely worth a trip.

Recommended Tours in Mont Saint Michel

Have you visited Mont Saint Michel? Do you have any other suggestions for those looking to plan a trip?

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Mont Saint Michel in Normandy France is an iconic tidal island visited by thousands each year. @tbookjunkie explains what to do if you have 48 hours there.

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