Things to do in Saint Malo Brittany
As a Canadian, we learnt about St. Malo Brittany and the French navigator Jacques Cartier who was sent by King Francis I to the New World in search of riches and a new route to Asia in 1534. He died in Saint-Malo in 1557.
Cartier had three ships – La Grande Hermine, La Petite Hermine, and L’Emerillon. The expedition reached Funk Island off Newfoundland’s coast. On September 7, 1535, Cartier was also the first European to sail down and map the Saint Lawrence River. Cartier and his men reached the site of the present-day city of Quebec.
As a history buff, I have wanted to visit Saint Malo France for years. It’s simply one of those special places that you read about in the history books. St Malo is also one of the locations from which the privateers and pirates sailed the oceans ravaging and pillaging – who wouldn’t want to visit?
To the east and west of Saint Malo, the Emerald Coast offers a succession of small resorts, with fine sandy beaches separated by lengths of rocky coastline. At the eastern end of the Emerald Coast, about 50km from Saint Malo, is le Mont Saint Michel.
The coastline of this region of Brittany is an incredibly dramatic backdrop for the imposing granite ramparts of the City. This coast sees some of the biggest tides in Europe and the landscape and seascape can change dramatically from one moment to the next. It is wise to take guided tours of the coastline with a guide who understands and appreciates the tides of Bretagne as the water can rise over 13 metres in 6 hours.
- Things to do in Saint Malo Brittany
- Map of Intra Muros – St. Malo
- How to get to St Malo
- St Malo History
- WWII and St Malo
- What to see in St Malo
- What to do outside St. Malo
- Where to Eat in Saint Malo
- Where to stay in Saint-Malo
Map of Intra Muros – St. Malo
How to get to St Malo
St Malo is located on the rugged shores of Brittany in France which is a 4-hour, 20-minute drive from Paris. Saint-Malo is also only one hour from Mont Saint-Michel, and you can combine the two locations in one trip. Although I wouldn’t suggest staying for a day as there is just so much to see in both Brittany and Normandy it is well worth spending a week touring these stunning provinces.
How to get to St Malo from Paris
To get to St Malo from the CDG airport you can take an Air France bus shuttle to Montparnasse railway station which will take you around 45 minutes. From Montparnasse, you can take the fast train TGV to St. Malo via Rennes. That journey takes around 3 hours.
If you rent a car in France and decide to drive it will take around 4 hours from Paris. When you reach St. Malo there are several parking lots or possibly your hotel may have parking spaces.
How to get to St Malo from England
Ferry to Saint-Malo
You can take the ferry from Portsmouth to St Malo, operated by Brittany Ferries. The ferry crosses from Portsmouth to St Malo overnight every day but Tuesday and returns from St Malo to Portsmouth mid-morning every day but Wednesday. Get more information on the route and timetables on the Brittany Ferries site. You can also get ferries coming into St Malo from Poole, Jersey, and the Guernsey islands.
Where to park in St Malo
I highly recommend using the Parking lot on the outskirts of Saint-Malo called the Feval P14 – EFFIA at Rue Paul Féval, 35400. This car park is located near the Hippodrome de la Côte d’Emeraude and the Etang de Marville. Whether you are coming by car or motorhome, spaces are available. You pay only €3.30 to park your car and €7.50 for your motorhome in this car park!
When you exit the parking lot cross the road and you will spot a bus stop with the numbers 2 and 2x on the sign. The bus you want will say Intra Muros and will take you directly to the tourist centre just outside the ramparts of St. Malo.
The great thing about this parking lot is that if you show your parking ticket you can take the free shuttle bus to the Old Town or as it is called here the Intra-Muros where you can walk the medieval streets and the city ramparts.
St Malo History
Saint-Malo is situated high above the Rance estuary and has been there since before the Romans arrived in France. In those times Brittany was called Armorica and many of the Celtic people moved to the region to escape the Roman battles in Britain. Saint-Malo was himself a Welsh immigrant who came to Brittany to assist in the work of Saint Aron who was establishing churches in the region. The City itself was founded in the 1st century and by the 4th century became a Gallo-Roman port called Reginca or Aletum which grew until it became St. Malo in the 12th century.
In the 16th century, Jacques Cartier set off from St Malo and stumbled across the new world which became Canada. Subsequently, the fishing fleets arrived in Newfoundland and began a great tradition of cod fishing.
During the 16th century, St Malo became a strategic port in France as it was a good stopping point for ships heading back to Britain. It was also a great point to leave Europe for the New World and all the potential riches of these vast unexplored lands.
Because of this, it was also a very convenient port for Pirates or as the French called them Corsairs. These privateers had the permission of the French government to attack foreign ships and steal their goods. In the 18th century, the two pirates made themselves famous.
Duguay-Trouin was a pirate from Saint-Malo who fought under the banner of Louis XIV. Duguay-Trouin captured over 3000 merchant ships and 16 warships during his time on the high seas. He also captured Rio de Janeiro and ransomed it for sugan and gold. He was named Lieutenant-General of the Navy and died in St Malo in 1736.
They called Robert Surcouf the King of the Corsairs and he was a cousin of Duguay-Trouin. He captured the Kent a British East India Company ship and ransomed it to the British. Throughout his sea-faring career, he became one of the most important shipowners in St Malo and was both a legitimate businessman and a pirate.
Several writers have been inspired by the city of Saint-Malo in their work. There are for example Colette, Anthony Doerr, Oliver Adam and Chateaubriand. The latter is the best-known of these writers. His real name was François René de Chateaubriand, he lived in St Malo between 1728 and 1848.
Chateaubriand’s famous Memoirs of my Life is his best-known work. The Memoirs has 12 volumes which begin with his life as a child and young man in Brittany. In the books, he details his stay in Paris during the Revolution, his escape to America and his eventual move to Rome. Chateaubriand is buried on the island of Grand Bé after he died in Paris in 1848.
Brittany is historically a rebel region and has constantly maintained an independent nature for centuries. Brittany or Bretagne has its language unique to the region called Breton and the residents of St Malo call themselves malouins as they always refused to be ruled by France. A famous saying from the town is:
“Ni Français, ni Breton, Malouin suis” (I am neither French, nor Breton, but Malouin).
WWII and St Malo
The Nazis occupied St Malo in 1940 and heavily fortified it as part of the Atlantic Wall. After the Normandy Landings of D-Day, some of the American armies headed west to take out the Germans in Brittany. There was some initial confusion about how many Germans were actually inside the walls of the city as the Americans believed there were thousands of German soldiers within the city.
On August 16, 1944, the city of Saint-Malo was almost destroyed due to fierce bombing by American troops. American bombs as well as British naval gunfire attacked the city for 10 days straight. These horrific bombings tore apart the city, destroying 80% of the buildings of the Intra-Muros
Over the 12 years from 1948 to 1960, the city was rebuilt brick by brick by the determined Malouins. St Malo was restored to its original glory, maintaining its medieval character.
What to see in St Malo
The walled city – St Malo old town
In French, the old town of St Malo is known as La Ville Intra Muros. The historic centre is a lived-in part of the city with exquisite shops, restaurants and cafes. Much of the city is foot traffic only as the narrow cobbled streets do not lend themselves to large modern cars.
The ramparts of St Malo are made up of towers from the 14th through to the 15th centuries curtain walls and bastions from the 17th and 18th centuries. When walking the ramparts you can see the Intra Muros cobbled street and reproduced Medieval houses and on the other achingly beautiful views of the golden sands and the port of St Malo.
The construction of St Malo Castle began in 1424 by the Duke of Brittany who wanted to protect his hold over the town. He built a large D-shaped Keep as the east corner where an isthmus was the only crossing point between the mainland and St Malo at that time. His keep incorporated part of the town walls and a wall tower.
It now houses the Town Hall and the Museum of History of Saint-Malo in the Grand Tower, and the Museum of Ethnography Saint-Malo country in the Solidor Tower. It is also called the Hotel de Ville.
The Solidor Tower
The Solidor tower was built from 1369 to 1382 on a rocky ledge overlooking the Rance Estuary. It was a fortified dungeon composed of three towers linked by curtain walls. It initially had a drawbridge that was replaced in 1756 with a stone bridge.
During the Revolution, the tower became a prison and these days as a listed historic monument it has been the home of a Museum that presents collections of objects, models, instruments and marine charts from the late nineteenth to the early twentieth century and the history of commercial navigation by the Cape Horn route, mainly from 1840 to the first quarter of the twentieth century.
It was Francis II, Duke of Brittany’s daughter Anne (the future Queen of France) who had the Quic-en-Groigne Tower built between 1498 and 1501. Two other towers called the Mill Tower and the Tower of the Ladies were added in later years.
Anne named the tower Quic-en-Groign because it was built against the wishes of the Saint-Malo residents. Anne had engraved the inscription Quic-en-Groign or “others may grumble, I don’t care”. In 1590, the castle was stormed by the people of Saint-Malo who wanted to prevent the governor from handing over the city to the supporters of the Protestant king Henri IV.
At the beginning of the French Revolution, St. Malo Castle was stormed by the people of the town and the curtain wall between the La Générale and Quic-en-Groigne towers was torn down. In 1792 they stormed it again.
Also known as St Malo Cathedral, a Gothic, Romanesque and Renaissance cathedral it houses the tomb of Jacque Cartier. Most of the cathedral has been repaired and restored due to the damage of WWII. There are stunning stained glass windows, soaring arches and buttresses and of course fabulous gargoyles.
Within the Cathedral you will also find Jacques Cartier’s tomb.
Jacques Cartier Museum La Maison du Québec
The House of Quebec is dedicated to Jacques Cartier’s “discovery” of Canada. The explorer himself is buried in the Cathedral of St Vincent.
When Cartier returned from the New World he bought a small farm which he transformed into an elegant 16th-century mansion and retired to. In 1978 a Canadian couple purchased the house and restored it as a visitor attraction.
Church of Sainte-Croix
The Roman Catholic church Sainte Croix was built in the 18th century and is located in Saint-Servan. It stands out among all the other churches with a severe blue granite architecture and its square tower surmounted by a dome. Inside are 2 organs classified as historical monuments.
Explore Le Grand Bé
Walking the ramparts you will spot a few hundred meters out in the Bay two islands. Le Grand Be is where the tomb of the famous writer François-René de Chateaubriand, is located. You can visit the island on foot when the tide is out.
Fort National – Petit Bé
While visiting St Malo, you will have the chance to explore Fort National, this Historical monument was designed in 1689 by the military architect Vauban to protect the port of St Malo from the British and the Dutch. Accessible by foot only at low tide when the French flag is flying you can cross the drawbridge to the granite bastion where you can visit the ammunition dungeon, and learn about the attacks on the Fort over the centuries.
La Maison Hussaye
While exploring you may stumble across the Maison Hussaye on the Cour la Houssaye. This historic monument is said to be one of the oldest in St Malo and it was not destroyed by the bombs of WWII. The house and gardens existed in this location since the 15th century, although the gardens are now gone to slightly newer 16th and 17th-century houses.
The stories say that Anne of Brittany (future Queen of France) would have stayed there when she came to inspect the work of the castle.
Rue Chat Qui Danse
The Dancing Cat Street – sounds really adorable and cute, doesn’t it? Sadly it’s a bit gruesome the story of how the street got its name. You can find the street behind the School of the Merchant Navy it’s a small dead-end street.
Now there are a few stories about how it got its name but the one that wins by consensus is that of the tale of how the English in the 17th century decided to attempt to destroy the pirates of St. Malo.
So the Brits developed a weapon of war that was essentially a 300-tonne ship with black sails and three decks loaded with gunpowder and shot that would we launched against the ramparts of St Malo. This took place in 1693 and the ship was called ‘the infernal machine’. The problem was – bad timing – and the boat missed the ramparts and the only victim was a passing cat the old legend says that the cat would have “danced” before it died.
For the residents of St Malo, it was the perfect chance to take the mickey out of the English and a monk from a nearby Benedictine convent said this: “The Englishman who, like the mountain/N’enfanta qu’ ‘a poor rat/In his Saint-Malo countryside/Only killed a poor cat’ .
Another historic note about the street is that the Pirate/ Privateer Robert Surcouf was born in 1773 in the Hôtel de la Bertaudière at number 2 rue du Chat-qui-Danse.
Saint Malo Beach
Saint-Malo was chosen as one of the best beach spots in France. The beaches here are made up of very fine soft white sand.
The main beach in Saint Malo is Grand Plage a very sandy strip of beach that was crowded with swimmers and picnickers. You can rent standup paddle boards, canoes and small boats to enjoy a trip around the bay from here.
What to do outside St. Malo
Crystal-clear water with emerald green highlights surrounds an archipelago of islands and islets located off the coast of St. Malo. Escape to the Chausey Islands, or even the Channel Islands, a little further offshore.
The islands of Saint-Malo in the bay of Mont-Saint-Michel
Take a day trip to the wild and uninhabited islands such as Cézembre, and Grand-Bé or spend some time on the beautiful Chausey Islands.
Mont Saint Michel
Saint Malo makes the perfect place to stay and head out to explore Mont St Michel. Mont Saint-Michel, the UNESCO World Heritage medieval monastery built on top of a single rock cut off to the French coast at high tide is 1 hour from St Malo.
The Chausey Islands
The Chauseys form the largest archipelago in Europe. It groups 365 islets at low tide and 52 at high tide.
Grande Île, the main island, is accessible by shuttle from Saint-Malo when the weather allows. once there, the first thing you’ll notice is the total absence of cars! The natural environment – the sea and the beautiful white sandy beaches are picture postcard perfect, you’ll be able to spend the day there or make the pleasure last by staying overnight in the island’s only hotel.
Only the beach is accessible to visitors to the island of Cézembre on a beautiful sunny day. Formerly fortified by the German army, the island is prohibited throughout the northern part for safety reasons. Wild and uninhabited, it has one of the very best beaches on the coast, being the only beach to face south. Ferries depart from Saint-Malo every day in the tourist season, tides and weather permitting.
The City of Alet was the area where the first settlers came near St. Malo. In the 12th century, the inhabitants moved to Saint-Malo and built the city we know today. If you love a good hike this is where you want to head to.
During WWII the city was occupied by the Germans and there is a memorial installed in an old bunker where you can see remnants of the war. Outside you will spot armoured steel bunkers with massive damage that was inflicted on them by the bombs of WWII.
Alet also contains the ruins of the Cathedral of Saint Pierre d’Aleth which is the oldest place of Christianity in the area.
Rock Sculptures of Abbe Foure
Just outside St Malo in Rothéneuf, you can see the art of Abbé Fouré. The Abbe suffered a stroke at the age of 30 which left him paralyzed on one side, deaf and mute. He became a hermit in the Cliffs and in 1870 began carving hundreds of faces and figures into the rocks around him.
With the assistance of an elderly villager, Foure spent 25 years carving the rocks along the shoreline. The carvings number over 300 pieces and were inspired by local tales of pirates, fishermen, smugglers and monsters.
The site is open from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m.and the ticket costs 2.50€. If you are mobility challenged or afraid of heights this is not an easy climb down stone steps that are pretty eroded by the tides and winds.
A mere half an hour’s drive from Saint Malo is the medieval city of Dinan. Dinan’s Old Town is arguably the most evocative and prettiest town in Brittany. As you walk down the steep cobbled lanes or enjoy a cafe creme at one of the outdoor terraces you can picture knights on horseback heading to the crusades, royal carriages entering the castle and jousting tourneys taking place in the Palace courtyards.
Dinan is the second most photographed town in France. This perfect little gem overlooks a gorgeous Harbour on the River Rance and is home to over 130 half-timbered houses. The tiny narrow streets with their cobblestones and stunning castle ramparts and ancient churches are a history lover’s paradise.
What to eat in St Malo
You can’t help but realize that the iconic food of Brittany is crepes. Both a sweet and a savoury version. The savoury version is known as a galette and is made of buckwheat flour making it gluten-free.
The galette is served with savoury fillings from tartiflette (scalloped potatoes on steroids) to breakfast favourites such as ham, cheese and eggs. Depending on which restaurant or take out the place you buy them they range from super thin and sort of crispy to slightly thicker and chewier. Both versions are fine by me.
Here in Brittany crêpes are sweet super-thin pancakes made from all-purpose flour and mostly served with traditional things like lemon and sugar, fruits and cream or with the perennial French favourite Nutella. Hubs of course add Maple Syrup to his (Canadian naturally) but I do like the lemon and sugar option.
When I first saw the Kouign-Amann (pronounced queen a man) on a baking show in the UK while housesitting I thought that’s an absolute must. So it was one of the first things I looked for in Brittany when I arrived.
My first impressions were meh – looked like nothing a sort of shiny round pastry. However, the real test was in the eating, heavenly. Crunchy on the outside and meltingly soft on the inside it quickly became addictive.
Cider has been made here in Brittany for hundreds of years, apples and pears were brought to the area by Norman explorers who learned about it from the Spanish Basque people. . Brittany grows over 600 varieties of apples and some of the best come from the region around Quimper which has been granted an Appellation d’Origine Controllé certification in 1996, Brittany’s first cider AOC.
Where to Eat in Saint Malo
Maison du Beurre creamery created Le Beurre Broder in Saint-Malo. This hand-kneaded butter is considered one of the finest in France and not only can you buy all the various kinds of butter created here you can also dine at the accompanying restaurant.
Bistro Autour du Beurre Bordier the Bistro is located right next to the Bordier butter shop and is dedicated to creating dishes with their famous butter. The restaurant is not cheap but gets very good reviews sadly we couldn’t get in as it was packed.
One of the appetizers is a charcuterie board featuring various hams, Bordier butter and cheese it starts at €23 euros. Mains include items like rabbit, lamb and roasted monkfish all of which sound incredibly delicious.
Le Bistrot de Solidor try perfectly cooked crabs, fillet steaks and sausages. You can choose between indoor or outdoor seating and superb French cuisine. The restaurant is Michelin recommended.
Crêperie Le Tournesol near St. Vincent this restaurant specializes in crepes and for a mere 22.50€, you can enjoy the following menu.
1 “selected” artisanal Breton sausage accompanied by its “Bordier” salted butter pancake
1 Celtic pancake (potatoes, “Bordier” camembert, Guémené andouille sausage, salad)
1 Brocéliande pancake
(smoked breast, free-range egg, Emmental cheese, cooked tomatoes)
1 crepe with homemade salted butter caramel and whipped cream
1 homemade hot chocolate crepe and whipped cream
Le Chalut is Michelin-starred refined cuisine, featuring high-quality, ‘just-off-the-boat ingredients with old-school service. Specialities include scallops with white truffle or turbot served with chanterelles. Several menus are available, some for lunch, some for dinner, all accompanied by amuse-bouches. For lobster lovers, try the all-lobster menu.
Where to stay in Saint-Malo
Thanks to its status as a top Brittany attraction, the town and its surroundings have no shortage of well-rated accommodations to suit every budget. However, as St Malo can get pretty busy, especially during the peak season (i.e. Summer), then I highly recommend booking your place to stay well in advance. Check the best Saint-Malo accommodation prices here.
A bit of luxury the Chateau Hotel has nestled in a 6-hectare park only a 5-minute drive from the beach, the Château Hôtel Du Colombier dates back to the 18th century and combines historical charm with modern comforts.
The beautiful grounds at the Château Hôtel Du Colombier include a rose garden, a chapel, a tea room, a beautiful terrace and a pond. Free Wi-Fi is available throughout the hotel.
Hôtel de France et Chateaubriand Stay in the heart of Saint-Malo in this beautiful location which is only a 2-minute walk from the beach. The Hotel de France and Chateaubriand are located in the heart of the historic city of Saint-Malo, 210 m from Saint-Malo Marina. It offers breathtaking views over the sea and le sillon.
The hotel is classified as a Historical Monument with its unique façade and as the birthplace of Chateaubriand. There is a fabulous restaurant serving regional specialities and traditional seafood dishes.
Logis Hôtel la Grassinais Great value for money La Grassinais is a 10-minute drive from Saint-Malo’s beaches and the walled city of Intra Muros. There is a breakfast buffet served every day
St malo France is a beautiful and historic city that offers visitors a wide range of things to do. Whether you’re interested in history, and culture, or just enjoying the beautiful scenery, there’s something for everyone here. From exploring the old town walls to taking a boat tour around the harbour, you’ll find plenty of activities to keep you busy during your visit. With its charming atmosphere and rich history, Saint Malo is worth adding to your travel itinerary if you’re planning a trip to France.
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