Mont Saint Michel, on the French coast of Normandy
Less than 2 km from the coast of Normandy, in northwest France, is the rocky island of Mont-Saint-Michel. In the center of the island you’ll the Abbey of Mont Saint Michel (Saint Michael’s Mount), where monks and hermits had sought solitude and security here long before the Benedictine monastery was consecrated in the 11th century. Over the next several 100 years, strong fortifications and Gothic additions made the abbey a major center of monastic life in medieval France.
After the French Revolution in 1789, the building was converted into a prison and served as a place of detention for clerics who opposed the Republican government. Around 1836, Victor Hugo and others campaigned for this architectural treasure to be restored. The prison closed in 1863 and ten years later it was declared a historical monument. Today, Mont-Saint-Michel is a leading tourist destination, which doesn’t prevent the island from retaining its medieval atmosphere. Access to the site is subject to ups and downs. At low tide you can reach Mont-Saint-Michel by crossing muddy plains cleared by the sea, but it is best to take a paved road as the speed of the tides can trap hikers on the sea’s arms.
The History of Mont Saint Michel
The granite rock of Mont Saint-Michel was originally called Mont Tombe. In the year 708, the Archangel Michael appeared in a dream to Saint Aubert, Bishop of Avranches, and asked him to build a sanctuary in his name. In 966, a community of Benedictines settled and built a first church. At the same time, a town began to develop below to welcome the first pilgrims.
The prowess of the builders
Pilgrims being more and more numerous, the original church became too small to accommodate them. The builders of the 11th century then accomplished a real architectural feat: they built four crypts all around the point of the rock, then built a large abbey church on them. In the 13th century, a donation from the King of France Philippe Auguste following the conquest of Normandy made it possible to undertake the Gothic ensemble of La Merveille. This is formed by two three-storey buildings, crowned by the cloister and the monks’ refectory.
A fortress facing the English
The Hundred Years War (1337-1453) made it necessary to protect Mont Saint-Michel by a set of military constructions that enabled it to withstand a siege of almost 30 years. The islet of Tombelaine, located 3 km away, which became an English stronghold, still retains ruins from this period. During the English siege, the Romanesque choir of the abbey church collapsed. It was replaced at the end of the war by the current Flamboyant Gothic choir.
The “Bastille of the seas”
Following the French Revolution, the monks had to abandon the abbey, which became a state prison. Until 1863, 14,000 prisoners passed through this “Bastille of the Seas”, where tides and shifting sands made any escape impossible. The families of the prisoners then replace the pilgrims who once frequented the alleys of the village.
The Belle Époque and the rise of tourism
In 1863, following requests from romantic writers and artists, the prison closed. The following year, the Service des Monuments Historiques restored the building and opened it to the public. To transport the increasingly numerous tourists, a dyke-road was built in 1879. Mont Saint-Michel thus lost its maritime character, which it only regained thanks to recent works. Between 1901 and 1938, a steam tram connected the town of Pontorson to Mont. During this same period, several old buildings in the village, poorly maintained, fell into disrepair. They are replaced by new constructions in neo-Norman and neo-Gothic style. Between 1928 and 1938, most of these architectural pastiches were destroyed to restore the village to its historic appearance.
The site was miraculously spared during the Second World War. The Germans will still occupy it between 1940 and 1944.
1966 marks the millennium of the foundation of the abbey and the return of a religious community. Since 2001, the brothers and sisters of the Monastic Fraternities of Jerusalem have ensured a permanent spiritual presence, and welcome pilgrims and visitors from all over the world.
In 1979, UNESCO inscribed Mont Saint-Michel and its bay on the list of World Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO.
Between 2006 and 2015, an extraordinary project made it possible to reinvent access to the site, with the aim of coping with the gradual silting up of the bay and preserving the maritime character of Mont Saint-Michel. The car parks have been redeveloped on the mainland, the old dyke-road has been destroyed in favor of a footbridge, and a dam has been built on the Couesnon to push back the sediments.
Mont-Saint-Michel befriended internationally with the island of Miyajima (municipality of Hatsukaichi in Japan) in 2009, and the municipality of Monte Sant’Angelo (in Italy) in 2019.
How to get there
By car: from Paris, take the A11 Chartres-Le Mans-Laval motorway and exit at Fougères towards Mont-Saint-Michel. Take the A13 motorway to Rouen and Caen then the A84 to Mont Saint-Michel.
From Paris Montparnasse, take the TGV to Rennes (2 hours). Connection by TER from Rennes to Pontorson. Afterwards, take the bus to Mont-Saint-Michel or the direct bus from Rennes to Mont-Saint-Michel.
From Paris Montparnasse, TGV to Dol de Bretagne (2 hours, 40 minutes) then the direct link from Dol de Bretagne by bus to Mont-Saint-Michel.
From Paris Saint-Lazare, take the regional train to Caen and the regional train from Caen to Pontorson. Then take the bus from Pontorson to Mont-Saint-Michel.
For more train information, see the following sites for National Trains and Regional Trains.
For more information on buses, please consult the following sites: Paris, and Paris / Caen / Saint-Malo.
The international airports of Roissy-Charles de Gaulle and Orly are in Paris.
Rennes airport is 75 kilometers from Mont-Saint-Michel and has 15 direct flights to several French cities and 120 connecting destinations.
Dinard Pleurtuit International Airport (70 kilometers from Mont-Saint-Michel) serves England (London Stansted) and the Channel Islands (Jersey and Guernsey).
When to visit?
Mont-Saint-Michel can be visited in any season. The hottest months are July, August and September, with an average between 20 and 30° Celsius. From November to March, temperatures remain relatively mild (between 0 and 10° Celsius), but there are many rainy and windy days. From late March to June, conditions are mixed with temperatures ranging from 10 to 25° Celsius.
In high season, you could avoid the crowds by visiting the monument before 10 a.m. or after 4 p.m. Mont-Saint-Michel lights up from dusk until midnight every day of the year. You will also be amazed by the spectacle of the high tides, the terraces of the abbey offering the ideal belvedere.
What to visit and what to do at Mont Saint Michel?
The Mount and the village
Free access at any time.
Observe the Mount from the large belvedere of the dam and take the opportunity to observe the overflow phenomenon. And climb the Grande rue and the ramparts.
The village of Mont Saint-Michel has a lot to offer and is a goldmine for history buffs. Although the village is small, there is a lot to discover.
Enjoy a visit to the medieval village of Mont Saint Michel dating back to 709.
Take the cobbled main street, the Grande Rue, lined with old houses and “lose yourself” in the medieval alleys. The village boasts around sixty listed houses and buildings – a delight for history buffs.
You can also walk along the ramparts built around Mont Saint Michel in the 14th and 15th centuries. These impressive fortifications protected the Mount from English attacks during the Hundred Years War.
The ramparts, made up of numerous towers, offer a breathtaking view of the bay of Mont Saint Michel. This is the perfect place to watch the spectacular spectacle of the rising tide.
The car park is 2.5 kilometers from Mont-Saint-Michel. The shuttles leave directly from the car park and drop you off 400 meters from the entrance. For visitors arriving by car and in possession of the parking card for disabled people, you have a dedicated car park (P2) located near the departure point of the shuttle (card). For more information, please visit this shuttle website.
The abbey of Mont-Saint-Michel, nicknamed “The Wonder of the West”, is a magnificent example of Gothic architecture from the beginning of the 13th century.
The 13th century was a period of great intellectual, artistic and economic activity, which gave rise to many major building programs in the Western world. From 1204, Normandy was attached to the Kingdom of France and therefore benefited from the attention and protection of the kings of France.
La Merveille, part of the abbey where the monks lived, was built at this time, on the north side of the rock. La Merveille is a splendid illustration of the spirit of Gothic art that was popular throughout Western Europe at that time. Its bold architecture consists of three superimposed levels, culminating at a height of 35 m, supported by sixteen powerful buttresses.
The construction work lasted 17 years, under four successive abbots. Each floor was organized according to different functions, public or monastic. On the ground floor, the provision cellar and the chaplaincy for the reception of pilgrims; on the second floor, the dining room with its imposing fireplaces reserved for special guests, and the room known as the “knights”, the former scriptorium. The final level included the cloister and the monks’ refectory.
The “knights” hall was also called the scriptorium. It has long been thought that the scriptorium was the place of production and illumination of manuscripts. However, it appears to have actually been used for reading and studying.
In self-guided tours, tour documents are available in French, English, German, Italian, Spanish, Russian, Chinese, Dutch, Japanese, Polish, Portuguese and Korean. The duration is 30 minutes to 1 hour 30 minutes and it is not necessary to book. Guided tours are in French and English all year round and in German, Spanish and Italian in July and August. The duration of the visit is 1 hour 15 minutes and reservation is not necessary. The audioguides are in French, English, German, Spanish, Italian, Japanese, Portuguese, Russian, Chinese and Korean with an additional charge.
Visit the museum history (Musée historique) or the museum of the sea and ecology (Musée Maritime).
Discover the home of Tiphaine (Logis Tiphaine), historic house of the knight Bertrand du Guesclin (constable of the armies of the King of France).
Located opposite the parish church of the village, the Archéoscope is a multimedia show that retraces the long history of Mont Saint-Michel in a lively and immersive way. From its geological formation to the site we know today, passing through the major stages of construction of the abbey, the story is punctuated by videos, reproductions of engravings and numerous light effects.
Crossing the bay of Mont-Saint-Michel
Open all year…
If you decided to wet your feet, walk towards the sacred rock in the footsteps of miquelots, shepherds, pilgrims from another time, who came in groups or alone to entrust their souls to the Archangel Saint-Michel. Believing it or not, crossing the bay on foot is an unforgettable experience in contact with the sometimes shifting sand, grass, wind, sun or rain. A light and a landscape in perpetual motion.
To appreciate all the poetry of this moment, it is strongly advised to undertake the crossing of the bay with a trained guide, in order to avoid the quicksands and to be surprised by the tide (the largest in Europe).
With a private or group guide, with or without presentation of the natural, technical or historical aspect, you can choose to leave early in the morning, get off the beaten track or walk in the middle of the night, torch in hand. Distance covered, between 3 km and 14 km. With children it is also possible.
Please pay attention before your visit:
- Suitcases and large backpacks are not permitted.
- The use of strollers on the Mount is not practical and they can only enter the monument when folded.
- Animals are not allowed, even in a bag.
- Knives and other weapons are not permitted.
- Smoking and/or eating is not allowed in the monument.
Please note: prices and opening hours of attractions are subject to change without prior notice.