You’ll spot it from miles away. Its pyramidal silhouette standing rock and spire above the surrounding river plains of Normandy. As you grow nearer, the scene tells a fairytale of a castle crowned by a gilded statue of a sword-wielding Saint Michel and a storybook village, with the sea as its moat.
When it comes to sightseeing, Mont Saint Michel has it all! A long and storied history, dramatic location and spectacular presence. Whether it’s the legend of Saint Michel himself commanding the construction of the monastery, or the adventure of reaching an island across potentially dangerous tidal flats—Mont Saint Michel has long drawn pilgrims and travellers alike.
Why is Mont Saint Michel famous? A brief, not-boring history
Mont Saint Michel was first known as Mont Tombe, a mere hunk of granite. Around the early 8th century, the bishop of nearby town Avranches, claimed to have been visited by Archangel Michael (Saint Michel), who insisted he build a shrine on the islet.
The location quickly became a Christian pilgrimage site and a Benedictine abbey was established there in 965. A village began to develop around the base of the Mont, to provide lodging and other services to such visitors. In the following two centuries, a Romanesque abbey was built.
In the 13th century King Philip II swipes Mont Saint Michel from the Duchy of Normandy and in the process, almost burnt the place down. He repented by coughing up the funds for a new monastery—the one known today as La Merveille, translating to “The Wonder”.
Half a century later, the island had to be fortified to resist attacks during the English v. French conflicts collectively named the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453), followed by the Catholic v. Protestant, Wars of Religion (1562-98).
Through the 18th century, the monastery declined and became secularised during the French Revolution. Under Napoleon I’s reign it became a state prison, becoming known as the “Bastille of the seas”. Eventually the artistic and literary communities in France caused a ruckus over the misuse of the mystical Mont. The prison was closed in 1863 and the Abbey buildings were restored and re-opened to the public in 1874.
In 1979 Mont Saint Michel was recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. It has long since been a popular tourist attraction and as of 2001 it is once again home to a small monastic community.
Is Mont Saint Michel worth visiting?
A combination of historical, cultural and geographical factors make Mont Saint Michel one of France’s most visited attractions, and with good reason. In short, this legendary islet has something here for everyone. The Abbey and its village will satisfy those interested in history, architecture and religion, while the unique location with its phenomenal tidal changes and quicksand riddled mudflats, will fulfill the desires of most nature lovers.
Things to do at Mont-Saint-Michel
Tour the Abbey (with an audio guide)
While on the island, you must of course tour the Abbey. This will also take you to the highest accessible point on the island for the best views of the surrounding Bay.
While the number of guided tours is currently reduced due to the pandemic, they are still available. There are also audio-guided visits if you prefer to explore independently. A time slot and/or tour must be booked in advance here or at one of the Tourist Offices – see for locations. Adult admission to the Abbey is €11 and the audio guide is an additional €3.
Witness the transformative tidal changes
Mont Saint Michel was once given the tagline “au peril de la mer,” translating to “at the peril of the sea”. This is because Mont Saint Michel Bay experiences enormous tidal changes. At its most extreme, the height difference is over 14-metres (about 46-inches) and seawater drains up to 15-kilometres from the shoreline. It also returns “as swiftly as a galloping horse,” in the words of Victor Hugo. These tidal changes are a spectacle in themselves—some of the most dramatic across continental Europe. Keep reading for more on timing your visit with the tides.
Walk the ramparts (Chemin des Remparts)
This raised walkway along the island’s fortifications, connects seven towers from Porte du Roy “Gate of the King” to Tour du Nord “North Tower”, along the eastern side of the Mont. The ramparts offer elevated views of the surrounding Bay as well as unique perspectives of the village.
Discover the main street and alleyways
The main street (Grand Rue) is best experienced first thing in the morning or last in the evening, when the crowds have thinned. In the meantime, there are many quiet corners to be found in the alleyways and back streets of the higglety-pigglety village that climbs the base of the Mont.
Follow the Chemin des Fanils (Route of the Fanils – see the English language map here) to see Gabriel Tower, gardens and higher viewpoints. Then follow the Escaliers route that weaves through the backstreets of town via the Parish Church of St Peter, town cemetery and other points of interest.
Learn more at the Tourist Information Centre
The Tourism Information Centre, on the mainland, has several exhibits that provide information about Mont Saint Michel and its natural surroundings. You can buy your tickets to the Abbey here, to secure a timeslot before you head out to the island on the shuttle bus that departs from right out front.
View the Mont from the dam and bridge (Le Barrage)
The Couesnon River is the waterway that empties into the Bay near Mont Saint Michel. As part of efforts to clear human-caused sand build-up in the Bay, a dam was constructed to time the River’s flow with the tides. The bridge across the dam is one of the best mainland viewpoints of Mont Saint Michel.
Explore Mont Saint Michel Bay on foot
Get a different perspective when the tide rolls out and explore the mudflats on a guided tour. Yes, an experienced guide is highly recommended as the rapid tidal changes and quicksand-like material of this coastline can be dangerous.
Fun fact: Scene 17 of the Bayeux Tapestry depicts Norman soldiers being rescued from quicksand around Mont Saint Michel, back in the day. You can see the Bayeux Tapestry at the Museum in its namesake town of Bayeux, a 1.5-hour drive from the Mont.
Browse medieval scripts
Visit Scriptorial d’Avranches, an interactive museum that holds 200 of Mont Saint Michel’s treasured medieval manuscripts and exhibits showing how such documents were made. The Scriptorial is located in the town of Avranches, just 30-minutes drive from Mont Saint Michel. Be sure to check the opening hours before setting out as they vary seasonally.
When is the best time to visit Mont Saint Michel?
If you can align good weather with the highest tide coefficients, then you are going to see Mont Saint Michel at its finest.
June through August see lower rainfall, more sunshine and the highest temperatures (but still quite mild). Of course, this means the Mont also sees a lot of visitors during this period. Having visited during a very grey and wet couple of days in mid-September, I think the chance of seeing Mont Saint Michel sunlit, would be worth sharing with a few extra people.
Due to the causeway that links Mont Saint Michel with the Normandy coastline, silt has built up over time and the Mont spends less time as an island than it used to. The access has been reconstructed over recent years to allow tides to flow and flush out sand build-up, but it is still only a few times a year that Mont Saint Michel is completely enveloped in the Bay’s waters.
If you want to witness Mont Saint Michel as an island, you’ll have to visit when the tidal coefficient is higher than 110 – you’ll find this information in local tidal charts. However, this only happens a few days each year and limits your visiting window.
Instead, I suggest aiming for the spring tide (any tide with a coefficient over 90) which happens twice per month about 36-48 hours after the full and new moon phases. If you happen to be visiting near the spring and autumn equinoxes (falling on March 20 and September 22 respectively in 2023), you’ll get an even more dramatic show, as spring tides are more extreme at these times of year.
Mont Saint Michel events
Throughout the year, a calendar of events bring light and music to the Abbey. You may also like to time your visit around one of the following:
Christmas Lights – Visit during the holiday season and experience Mont Saint Michel dressed for Christmas with festive illuminations of the streets and Abbey.
Christian Art Festival – A summertime event that is free to the public, where the works of artist’s inspired by Mont Saint-Michel’s religious history and spiritual presence are on display. Concerts and workshops are also part of the event program.
Jazz on the Bay – Another summer festival brining concerts, film viewings and classes to the Mont.
Mont Saint Michel Bay Marathon – Calling all long-distance runners! This annual race along the coastline is attended by competitors from around the globe.
Night shows – Throughout July and August, you may tour the Abbey in the evening (Monday-Saturday) to experience a music and light show that brings to life the building’s history. The parking rate is reduced from 7pm onward and the Abbey is open until midnight on these summer nights. Tickets to these shows are separate from the usual admission.
Overnight or day trip to Mont Saint Michel?
Any visit to Mont Saint Michel is better than none at all, however I advocate for overnighting on or near the island, if possible. The longer you spend on/near Mont Saint Michel, the more you are likely to experience its magic. What do I mean by that? As you’ve just read, variations in tides, weather and time of day all contribute to the Mont Saint Michel experience. The optimum conditions can be unpredictable and fleeting—give yourself the best shot at seeing Mont Saint Michel in its most dazzling light, by allowing yourself time.
Where to stay at Mont Saint Michel?
There are a small number of lodgings on the island itself and another cluster of hotels in the hamlet of Mont Saint Michel on the mainland (previously named La Caserne), right at the end of the causeway. The costs are high and ratings are average for both accommodation and food. It’s a tourist gouge because one entity owns most of it and they know you’re probably never coming back, so there’s little motivation to provide good value. It’s one of those places where you just have to bite the bullet and lower your expectations.
There are pros and cons to both on- and off-island locations. Here are some points to consider before you decide where to stay:
- You cannot take a full suitcase across to the island. I mean you can, but you will have to lug it up a steep, cobblestone path and stairs. Most people recommend leaving your main luggage in your car and just taking your needs for the night in a small backpack or carry on. Parking is provided in a large public carpark where security is not guaranteed.
- You can access the island 24-hours a day (aside from a few hours during the very highest of tides) by foot or using the shuttle bus. That means you can still stay on after the day trippers and enjoy some quiet time on the island before or after the bus loads, without staying on the island itself.
- If you want to see the Mont lit at night, the best perspective is from the mainland. I also think that if the weather isn’t great, the better views are looking at the Mont, rather than from the Mont. On rainy or overcast days, the Bay can be shrouded in low lying cloud or mist but the Mont would be hard to miss.
- During the summer there are evening events that take place on Mont Saint Michel, which makes staying on the island a more attractive option.
How to get to Mont Saint Michel?
The best way to get to Mont Saint Michel without a tour is by car. Public transport is possible but doesn’t really save you any time or allow any flexibility to explore the surrounding countryside or sights along the way.
It’s about 365-kilometres/225-miles (4.5-hours) drive from Paris to Mont Saint Michel. The toll roads add up (around €25-30 each direction), but do save you time.
Once you reach the hamlet of Mont Saint Michel, you will find a large carpark (4000-vehicle capacity) located 1.5km (about a mile) from the Mont. The carpark is divided into numbered lots from P2-P13. P2 is the accessible lot, while P3 is for hotel guests with an access code. P5, P6, P7bis, P10, P11, P12 and P13 are for cars under 5m (~16ft).
Parking rates are in 24-hour intervals and vary by season. For vehicles that are under 5-metres, high season parking costs €15.00 per 24-hours—current as of September 2022. See more parking rates and information here.
If you are staying overnight on Mont Saint Michel or in the mainland hamlet of the same name, your hotel will provide you with a code (via email) that grants you access to parking lot P3. You will need to type in the code at the barrier and collect your ticket—do not lose it.
Note: This parking is not free or included in your accommodation. You will be asked to pay for your parking when you exit the lot. The access code is just to permit you entry into the spaces reserved for overnight guests.
Take a train from Paris Montparnasse to Pontoroson, which is the closest station to Mont Saint Michel (4-5-hour ride). From there you need to jump on the shuttle bus for around 20-minutes, which will drop you at the Mont Saint Michel Tourism Information Centre. See the shuttle bus schedule here.
The last stretch
To reach the Mont, you will need to cross the edge of the Bay. The newly constructed You can do this on foot, by shuttle bus or maringote (horse and carriage):
- The causeway itself is only 760-metres long but the walk from the carpark/visitor centre is closer to 1.5-kilometres/1-mile. Remember that you will be getting around on foot the entire time you are on the island. We chose to take the shuttle bus out and walk back, to spare our legs.
- The shuttle bus is included in your entry fee and makes a few stops along the way, making it up to an hour-long trip to almost the foot of the Mont.
- You can ride the maringote one-way or two. The charge is €6.70 per direction and takes 25-minutes each way.
Last tips for visiting Mont Saint Michel
- If you are staying overnight, make a dinner reservation. I don’t know if this is just a post-pandemic experience, while the hospitality industry is short on staff, but even at only 8pm (which is early for a French dinner), we couldn’t get into a restaurant. They weren’t full, but they weren’t taking any more diners. What?! We did manage to get in somewhere eventually after a long walk in the rain. Save yourself the trouble.
- The Abbey requires you to pass through the usual French security detail. For the protection of the monument, large bags, backpacks and suitcases are not permitted in the Abbey. You may take a carry-on size bag defined as less than 50x55cm.
- Dress in layers, and bring along both sun and rain protection. If you are taking to the sandflats, you’re going to get muddy so where appropriate shoes. Tours are often held barefoot—check with your guide/agency.
- If you are on a budget, bring your own water bottle and snacks, as food on the Mont is expensive.
- The sun sets behind the Mont as you are looking at it from the mainland, so the causeway or dam are great places for photos late in the day – weather pending, of course.
For more information, see these official websites:
I hope you are completely spellbound by the history and spectacle of Mont Saint Michel. If you have any questions, please drop them in the comments below.
Peace, love & inspiring travel,