Visiting Mont St Michel the ultimate guide to this UNESCO site
Mont St Michel is one of those iconic places that is a must-visit when in France. Mont Saint-Michel is not a castle but it certainly arises out of the sea as if it was.
Mont Saint Michel is located on a small island just off the coast of Normandy and is a stunning UNESCO World Heritage site. Mont St Michel is not a castle it is a medieval Abbey and village constructed over 1300 years on a tiny island surrounded by the sea.
The building and architecture of the Mont St Michel Abbey and the village is awe-inspiring and a phenomenal glimpse into the expertise and mastery of medieval builders and architects.
Mont-Saint-Michel contains a small village in which live around 50 people and a medieval monastery. It is only 17 acres in size and sits around a kilometre as the crow flies from the shore.
Where is Mt Saint-Michel?
Located on the coast of Lower Normandy Mont-Saint-Michel is in the Manche département, Normandy region. Approximately 41 miles (66 km) north of Rennes and 32 miles (52 km) east of Saint-Malo and around 4 hours from Paris.
Mont Saint Michel has always been a very strategic location as it stands almost on the border of the provinces of Normandy and Brittany. The Cousenon river has been the boundary between the two provinces, but these days the river empties into the sea on the west side of the Mont which means that the island is now more on the Norman side of the border when historically it used to be more on the Breton side.
How to get to Mont Saint-Michel?
The closest train station to Mont Saint Michel is Pontorson. It can be accessed via the following train lines:
Trains from Paris Saint-Lazare to Caen, then a TER train from Caen to Pontorson, then the shuttle bus from Pontorson to Mont-Saint-Michel.
Trains from Paris Montparnasse to Granville, get off in Folligny and get another train to Pontorson, then the shuttle bus from Pontorson to Mont-Saint-Michel.
Trains from Paris Montparnasse to Pontorson then the shuttle bus from Pontorson to Mont-Saint-Michel.
There is a free direct shuttle bus that will take you from Pontorson train station to Mont-Saint-Michel. It stops at Pontorson, Beauvoir, the hamlet of Mont Saint Michel (previously La Caserne) – the shopping area located on the mainland, just before the town of Mont-Saint-Michel: by getting off at this stop, you can visit the dam or have a meal.
Best time to visit Mont St Michel
We were very lucky at the tail end of covid we managed a visit to Mont with very few tourists. My recommendation would be to visit France and Mont in early spring or fall that way you can avoid some of the tourist crowds. But I have to tell you even when the crowds are much smaller than usual Mont is still packed.
The best time to visit the Mont would probably be as early as you can. Opening hours are 9:30 am to 6 pm from September to April and 9 am to 7 pm from May to August. Last admissions are an hour earlier.
Take a guided bus tour from Paris to Mont St-Michel
Parking at Mont Saint-Michel
When you follow the signs to Mont St Michel (if you drive) you will be directed to park in one of the many car parks lining the area. On entry to the car park, you will take a ticket from the machine which much be paid for before you leave. Parking at the Mont costs 14.90€ for the day and includes the ‘free’ shuttle to the Mont itself.
As you walk to the shuttles you will see hundreds of folks lined up to get on the shuttle buses and many that decide to walk across the bridge to the Mont. That walk is around 2.5 km and probably takes an hour or more depending on your walking ability.
You can also bike over and if you want something a little less modern take one of the horse drawn Maringotes at a cost of around €6 each way and the trip takes around 25 minutes.
Can you visit Mont St Michel at high tide?
I’ve only seen Mont-Saint-Michel when the tide was out but you can visit and see the island, surrounded by water, but you will have to visit at high tide which takes place 36-48 hours after a full moon. You can find the tide schedules here.
Crossing the Causeway to Mont St Michel
The shuttles to get to the Mont are ‘free’ and you can walk across the Causeway if you fancy a 2km walk. The Causeway was first built in the 19th century and a dam was constructed to reclaim land around the shoreline. Over time, however, the sand became blocked and built-up deposits which caused environmental problems.
In 2005 to reverse the sand built up and maintain the fell of the Mont the Causeway was dismantled and a new bridge style one was built along with a dam that allowed the tides to work naturally and wash the built-up sand away. At the same time on the mainland, the parking lots were re-built further away from the shore and shuttles were introduced to move visitors and locals back and forth to the island.
Sadly though with global warming, the tides are changing and it may still be possible for the Mont to become part of the mainland.
What does it cost to see Mont Saint-Michel?
Technically it is free to visit Mont Saint Michel and the shuttle buses are also ‘free’, but parking will cost you €14.90 and there are charges to visit the small museums on the Mont itself along with a fee to enter the Abby.
Admission to the Abbaye du Mont Saint Michel is €10 for adults and free for EU citizens or permanent residents of France up to age 25, otherwise €8 for 18 to 25-year olds and free for all children under 18.
Tickets are only sold at the abbey entrance, so expect to queue, or online from the abbey or easier from Tiqets or GetYourGuide that sell mobile phone tickets allowing holders to go straight into the building.
9 Tips for visiting Mont St Michel
- Wear very comfortable walking shoes. The walk across the bridge takes over an hour and the Mont itself is all uphill with flat cobbled streets and some pretty severe inclines.
- Bring a hat to shade your head and sunglasses.
- Go as early as you can if you plan on seeing the Mont in the summer or spring. It can get very hot crossing the bridge and even if the village is in shade it can get extremely warm when crushed in with thousands of tourists.
- Skip the lines at the Abbey by buying your tickets online.
- Take a frozen water bottle or two with you – you’ll need it.
- Pack a sandwich or baguette to eat there as prices in the restaurants can be very high.
- If you want to walk on the sands outside take some cornstarch in a small baggie to use to get the sand off your feet otherwise it will be an uncomfortable walk with sand in your shoes.
- Don’t bother with the Mere Poulard cookies they are half price off the island.
- If you want to see the Mont lit up at night purchase your tickets in advance.
Mont St Michel at night
Since 2018, Mont-Saint-Michel has lit up at dusk throughout the summer. Make your way through the maze of monastic buildings, watch the ‘Chronicles of the Mount’ night show, and enjoy an evening of mystery, contemplation and spirituality.
At sunset, the doors of the Abbey of the are flung open and visitors are treated to a spectacle of state-of-art light and sound effects, video projections, and 14 audio-visual presentations in each of the chambers of the Abbey, all as part of the ‘Chronicles of the Mount’ night show that takes place throughout the summer. Tickets for this event are €15 and are purchased separately here.
History of Mont St Michel
In the 6th century, the island was first inhabited by hermits which historians believe were Celtic monks drawn to the solitariness of the island. Originally called Mont Tombe, in 710, Mont Tombe was officially renamed Mont Saint Michel au péril de la Mer (“Mont-Saint-Michel at the peril of the sea).
It was renamed by Charlemagne who chose Saint Michael as the symbolic protector of his Empire in the 9th century, and he shortened the name of the island to Mont-Saint-Michel. The Mont enjoyed a period of stability under Charlemagne’s rule and became a place of prayer and study.
The legend of the Abbeys founding begins in 708, The Bishop of Avranches (a nearby town) had a dream in which the archangel Michael appeared to him and told him to build a church on the Mont. The Bishop did not follow the angel’s instructions and Michael appeared to him three times. On the fourth and final visit – since the Bishop was not yet convinced to take on this mission, Michael pressed his finger into Aubert’s forehead and repeated his order.
Aubert awoke the next morning to find that the archangel had burned a hole in his head. He needed no further convincing! In late 709, a small church was built and devoted to Archangel Michael.
If any of you have watched HBO’s Vikings TV series you may remember the character Rollo, Ragnar’s brother who stayed in France and became a Christian. Rollo reigned over Normandy until around 928 and he was a supporter of the Mont and helped fight with the wars taking place in Normandy and Brittany. It was Rollo who arranged for the damaged buildings to be repaired after the battles.
Rollo asked the monks to return to the Island and he and his heirs continued to provide financial support over the years. Sadly though as usual money corrupts and the monks became a tad avaricious and began using their Christian ‘powers’ to help the local Nobles who of course had to pay for these heavenly favours.
As a result, the religious order of monks began to enjoy the richer pursuits of feasting, travelling, hunting and a more luxurious lifestyle. In 942, Richard I (Rollo’s grandson) tried to encourage the monks to return to the religious lifestyle. When they decided not to return to religious life they were told that a Benedictine Order was going to take over the Mont. The existing monks either had to convert or leave – only one stayed.
The Benedictines moved in and in 966, the new order was established at Mont-Saint-Michel. This is the year that the Abbey celebrates as its founding year. By the year 1000, a new, bigger church was built; this was the double nave pre-Roman church Notre-Dame-sous-Terre.
The Chapel was the original church at Mont S. Michel and was built by the Benedictines around 966 on the site of the oratory built by Saint Aubert. Discovered during excavations done in the 19th and 20th centuries It is only since the restoration in 1960 that the remains of the Chapel can be seen.
Chosen by Richard II, Duke of Normandy, the Italian architect, William of Volpiano, designed the Romanesque church of the abbey in the 11th century. It is this building that serves as the foundations of the Abbey we see today. Many underground crypts and chapels had to be built to compensate for the weight of the church which became the supports.
In 1203 it was partly burned when King Philip II of France tried to capture the mount. He compensated the monks by paying for the construction of the monastery known as La Merveille (“The Wonder”).
The Church that now crowns the island was built beginning in the 11th century and not truly completed until the 19th.
The Romanesque nave was constructed in the 11th and 12th centuries. The flamboyant gothic style choir was started in 1450 and finished by 1521, the tower and spire with its statue of St. Michael were added in the 19th century.
You can visit the refectory and a stunningly beautiful cloister and the church itself with its soaring roof and incredible stained glass windows.
Second, only to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, Mont-Saint Michel was an important pilgrimage of faith during the Middle Ages. It was also a centre of culture and was given the nickname “City of Books” as a large number of manuscripts were produced and stored here.
Accessibility of Mont St Michel
Mont St Michel is a medieval village and abbey and as such there are no concessions to those of us who have difficulty walking or are in wheelchairs. There are no issues from the car park to the site itself, although sadly there are no resting places from the parking lot to the line up for the shuttle and the wait can be extremely long.
The restrooms are directly in the entrance of the site and are not accessible at all as there are a few steps up and as ridiculous as it sounds very often they are not open. Oh, and they cost 0.80 cents to use. There are easier to access restrooms around 150 yards in just past La Mère Poulard on your right-hand side. These are not particularly pleasant facilities but at least they are somewhat accessible but not to wheelchairs I’m afraid.
The shuttle stops 400 m from the entrance to the Mont and the main street is 200 m long, mostly uphill. The Village of Mont St Michel pretty much starts right at the entrance and goes straight uphill on what can be a very tricky and steep angle making walking difficult. There are really no places to rest unless you can grab a spot on the occasional rock or curb. At the top of the main street, starts the “Grand Degre” stairs (350 steps) which leads to the Abbey itself.
What to see in the Village of Mont St Michel
Upon entering the site you will notice there is a fountain to the left-hand side which has a sign forbidding you to wash your feet in the fountain. This is probably because those who have taken a walk on the sands of the Mont now need to get the sand off their feet.
Walking through the King’s Gate that was built in 1435 you see the moat which was reconstructed in 1992. From here you will spot the boulevard gate and the advance gate where you will find two large cannon barrels or Michelettes left behind by the English after their defeat here in 1434.
Just before the King’s Gate, you will hear the rhythmic beating of what sounds like some strange ancient metal drum and you will see a large crowd to your left peering into a window.
Auberge La Mère Poulard
That is the famous La Mère Poulard restaurant and hotel and that drumming noise you hear are the staff beating the egg whites in copper bowls for the world’s most famous (and it has to be said overpriced) omelette. Generally speaking apart from the ambience of the place and of course its amazing history the food is overpriced and pretty average.
In the late 1800’s Annette and Victor Poulard purchased a run down hotel on Mont St Michel and developed the building into a restaurant and hotel. The restaurant focused on lighter foods and sauces than were traditional in France and they used all locally grown and obtained ingredients.
Annette developed a soufflé like omelette that has now become famous worldwide. The eggs are mixed in a copper bowl by hand and the resulting omelette is then cooked over a wood fire.
Now I’ve seen reviews that rave about the omelettes but on the other hand, the majority of reviews say “it’s an omelette nothing special” and I have a real issue with paying €30 for some cooked eggs. Even the children’s platter is €20 euros. The best advice for the Mont is to take your lunch with you prices are pretty much sky high for mediocre food – in reality, what you are paying for is the fact that you ate there.
There are quite a few restaurants and cafes along the village main street most are terribly overpriced with bad reviews and it is so packed the likelihood of getting a table is poor unless you are prepared to wait for a long time till a table opens up. There are a few places where you can grab a baguette sandwich and simply walk and eat at the same time.
The Village of Mont St Michel
Along your walk up the Rue Grande to the Abbey, you will see a few museums, a small church and many shops selling the usual tourist tat. Celtic symbols, Mont St. Michel plates, faux antique guns and swords and lots of knights in armour can be bought here for ludicrous prices to don’t bother.
What to see on Mont St Michel
Opposite the small church of the village, you will see the Archéoscope. This is a multimedia show that traces the long history of Mont Saint-Michel, from its geological formation to the major stages of construction of the Mont.
Bertrand du Guecslin was one of France’s most heroic knights and his nickname was the Eagle of Brittany. Bertrand distinguished himself during the 100 years was and was made Grand Constable of France’s army.
He built a house for his wife Tiphaine on Mont St Michel in the 14th century. You can visit the house and see the period furniture and the armour of Bertrand. His wife Tiphaine was an astrologer and the house contains her astrology cabinet.
Situated at the foot of the Abbey this museum contains 1300 years of the Mont’s history with a reconstruction of the dungeons and wax images of the monks and prisoners.
The museum also exhibits a collection of ancient objects (weapons, sculptures, paintings, watches), instruments of torture from the Middle Ages, an iron cage of Louis XI. The garden of the museum showcases one of the last five telescopes in the world, dating from the XIX century, where you can see the outstanding views of the Bay.
This museum, located in the lower part of the Grande Rue, allows you to understand the tides in the Bay of Mont Saint-Michel, which has the strongest tides in continental Europe. It also explains the challenges of the recent Operation to restore the maritime character of Mont Saint-Michel you will also find a fantastic collection of 250 antique model ships.
Tickets are sold by the individual museums, and a combined ticket provides reduced entrance fees for all four.
You can opt for a combined ticket for four museums for the following price
For Adults above 25 years old: €18
Between 18-25 years old: €9
Below 18 years: Free
Nestled at the foot of the abbey on the main street, the parish church of Église Saint-Pierre (Church of St Peter) is a little gem often overlooked by visitors. Within the church, you can see a silver statue of the archangel Michael who inspired the building of Mont St Michel.
On the outside of the church, you will see a lovely statue of Joan of Arc. Joan of Arc was inspired by the island’s stand against the English that she became determined to recapture France from the invaders.
When the abbey was secularised in the 19th century, the church became the focus of the pilgrimages to Mont Saint-Michel. The town cemetery borders the church and here you may spot the graves of Mother Poulard and her husband Victor.
The Abbey of Mont St. Michel
When you first catch sight of the Mont you will spot ramparts that circle the island and a 3 tiered assembly of buildings from the 13th century known as La Merveille (The Wonder) that rise up to the abbey’s pointed spire.
On the second terrace of La Merveille is one of Mont-St-Michel’s largest and most beautiful spaces, a 13th-century hall known as the Salle des Chevaliers. Crowning the mount’s summit is the spellbinding Eglise Abbatiale church.
Only 350 or so steps to reach the Abbey and when you get there the entry ticket will cost €10 euros.
The Romanesque abbey church is located between 1023 and 1085 at the highest point of the rock. The central vault of the church has an exposed frame and, in the purest Norman tradition, it is covered with wooden panelling.
The facade of the church was rebuilt in 1780 after a fire destroyed it. From the outside, the abbey is supported by a superposition of flying buttresses and the whole building is dominated by a neo-Gothic copper spire reaching 160 meters above the island. The golden statue of the Archangel Michael was made and installed in 1897.
Between the 11th and 12th centuries, for lack of space, the monastic premises were built on two floors, directly on the sides of the rock. They are erected around the abbey church and form a semi-circle. These rooms were for the use of the monks.
The cloister is very different from the other rooms as it open onto a pretty interior garden surrounded by 137 pink granite columns staggered, and connected at their top by diagonal arches.
In 1791 after the French Revolution, the abbey was closed and converted to a prison that initially held over 300 priests who were considered enemies of the Republic due to their opposition to the new republican regime.
At that time the Mont was nicknamed “Bastille des Mers”, meaning “Bastille of the sea”. It wasn’t until 1863 that Napoleon III ordered the prisoners (650 of them) transferred to other facilities and influential people like Victor Hugo began to launch campaigns to turn the Mont into a national treasure.
Mont St. Michel map
Mont St Michel inside the Abbey map
Hotels on Mont Saint-Michel
There are a few hotels located right on the Mont that you can stay at or if you prefer there are hotels located near the shuttle buses, not on the island. Prices range from 150€ to 300€ per night depending on the season.
La Vieille Auberge
La Vieille Auberge is located in the medieval village of Le Mont Saint Michel, just a short walk from the famous Mont Saint-Michel Abbey. It offers free WiFi access, a restaurant and a terrace with views of the Mont Saint-Michel Bay.
Rooms are located in 2 annexe buildings with many stairs to climb. One building offers standard rooms and the other building, located at the top of the village, offers rooms with a sea view. They feature a flat-screen TV and a private bathroom with a bath or shower.
A continental breakfast can be enjoyed every morning at La Vieille Auberge. There is also a bar at the hotel, and the restaurant serves traditional French cuisine.
La Croix Blanche
Is situated in the heart of Mont Saint Michel medieval Village, Hôtel La Croix Blanche offers a terrace and a bar. The rooms at Hôtel La Croix Blanche have a flat-screen, satellite TV and a minibar. Free Wi-Fi access is provided.
Les Terrasses Poulard
Composed of 2 different buildings, Les Terrasses Poulard is a historical property in the heart of Mont Saint-Michel and offers views of the bay, the village and the street.
Accessed by stairs, each room has a modern décor. Some rooms include large windows with bay views. They are equipped with a TV and a private bathroom.
Breakfast is served at the Auberge de la Mère Poulard restaurant, a 2-minute walk away, and the restaurant specialises in French and regional cuisine and is also open for lunch and dinner. Alternatively, guests can enjoy a meal at the onsite La Confiance restaurant which offers meals, drinks and snacks.
Mouton Blanc Hotel
At the foot of the abbey, the Mouton Blanc Hotel welcomes you in its historic 14th-century location. Le Mouton Blanc provides comfortable rooms with a simple yet cosy decoration.
The rooms are divided into 3 buildings: one of them offers views of the Mont Saint-Michel, and the other one features medieval-style rooms.
The Mouton Blanc restaurant offers local traditional cuisine, served in the dining room or the terrace. Breakfast is served daily.
So there you have it your ultimate guide to visiting Mont St Michel. If you have any questions or want to share your experiences feel free to add them in the comments.
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