Last Updated on 29th April 2021 by Sophie Nadeau
Located on the very fringes of France and straight out of the history books, Saint-Malo definitely shouldn’t be missed on a trip to Brittany. Here’s your ultimate guide to the 10+ very best things to do in Saint Malo!
If you have an interest in history, love Northern France, and are on the lookout for a quirky getaway, then perhaps you should consider taking the time to visit Saint-Malo in Brittany. Situated in a place where the land meets the sea and where myth is often hard to separate from legend and history itself, the windswept, walled city, straight out of a storybook St-Malo was founded as early as the 1st Century CE by the Gauls.
It soon came to be known as Reginca or Aletum by the Romans. With its easily protected and fortified position, the area was the site of a prominent Roman fort by the 4th-Century. Today, the Northern France town is popular among holidaymakers thanks to its stunning vistas and wealth of things to do.
- What is St Malo famous for?
- A history of Saint Malo (…and the name of a saint…)
- Why you should visit Saint Malo
- Best things to do in Saint Malo
- #1 Explore Le Grand Bé (also known as ‘Bey’)
- #2 Spy the Petit Bé (second island of Saint Malo)
- #3 Meander along Les Ramparts de Saint Malo
- #4 Step inside the Saint-Malo Cathedral
- #5 Discover La Cour La Hussaye, a fairytale turret in the heart of Saint Malo
- #6 Rue Chat qui Danse, strangest street name in Saint Malo
- #7 Relax on the Beaches of Saint Malo
- #8 Learn about the history of Pirates on Saint Malo
- #9 Take a day trip to Fort du Guesclin
- #10 Take a day trip to the rest of Brittany
- Things to know before visiting Saint Malo
- Where to stay in Saint-Malo
- Did you enjoy reading about the best things to do in Saint Malo? Pin it now, read it again later!
What is St Malo famous for?
With its large fortified walls and location at the edge of the land which means its largely surrounded by the crashing waves of the sea, it’s hard not to recognise Saint Malo on any postcard or photograph.
St Malo is most famous for being the location from which many privateers (state sponsored pirates) based themselves during the middle ages. In more recent times, the walled city has become a popular holiday destination thanks to its many historic buildings, sea vistas, and ease of access to the rest of France.
A history of Saint Malo (…and the name of a saint…)
By the mid-sixth Century, modern-day Saint-Malo was founded by a saint of the same name. Saint Malo of Aleth was a Welsh immigrant who arrived in Brittany and was one of its original founding saints. Hailing from Wales, he arrived in the region to aid in the work of Saint Aron of Brittany, establishing several churches in the area. Also known as Saint Maclou, it’s thought that his name derives from the old Breton words meaning ‘hostage‘ and ‘bright/ beautiful’.
Although the town’s modern-day walls and fortifications were constructed around the 12th-century, Saint Malo did not gain real notoriety until the rise of privateers in the 17th and 18th centuries. Sadly like much of Northern France, large parts of the town were destroyed during the Second World War. Much of what can be seen is a fairly faithful reproduction built between 1948 and 1960.
The city sees some of the biggest tides in Europe, leading to a dramatic ever-changing landscape. One minute the sky is blue, and the next there can be a raging storm. Stony skies contrast starkly with the imposing granite ramparts.
Although the population tends to hover around 150,000, it can swell to well above 200,000 at the high peak of tourist season. That being said, when we visited at the beginning of September, just after the Summer rush of August, I didn’t find the place to be too crowded at all!
Why you should visit Saint Malo
All the history
It’s well-known that the motto of Saint-Malo, which dates back to the 16th-century, is “Ni Français ni Breton, Malouin suis” (I am neither French nor Breton, I am Malouin). The town has a long history of being self-governed, a fact which undoubtedly led to the rise of a whole host of privateers and pirates over the years.
If you love reading fiction books with a twist of history (and are also a francophile at heart!) then you simply must read ‘All the Light We Cannot See‘ by Antony Doerr. This Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is set at the height of WWII and takes place in various locations throughout Europe, including Paris and, of course, St-Malo. I don’t want to give away too much, but it’s worth noting that the prose and descriptions are out of this world beautiful…
With its own local language of Breton and Celtic mythology never too far away, Brittany is now only awash with the sea but also by regional myths and legends. Local Arthurian tales worth mentioning are those involving the wizard Merlin, who is said to have resided in magical Breton forests, as well as that of Château de Comper, in the Morbihan Region, which is said to have been the birthplace of Sir Lancelot.
Elsewhere in the Brittany region, there are plenty of stories of star-crossed lovers, sinners, and of course, saints. Saint-Malo himself is the patron saint of the city of Saint-Malo, lost items, and (rather randomly) pig-keepers. Allegedly born in Wales, he is said to be the founder of the modern day city, as well as one of the founding saints of Brittany.
If sandy beaches are your thing, then you’ve come to the right place. Provided that the weather is good (it’s worth noting that it rains quite a bit in this part of France- there’s a reason those rolling hills are so green!), then spending the day exploring the golden beaches of Saint-Malo is an absolute must.
Highlights of the sands which lies outside of Saint-Malo’s fortified structure include Plage du Mole (what this popular beach lacks in space, it most certainly makes up for in prime views), as well as the Plage de l’Eventail (though the rockiest of Saint Malo’s beaches, Chateaubriand named it among his favourites as a child).
Saint Malo is the perfect base for exploring the region
Some of the very best day trips from Saint-Malo include a visit to nearby Mont Saint Michel (you know, that conically shaped tidal island which is home to a Gothic Abbey), as well as a trip to the best-preserved medieval town in Brittany, that of Dinan. Check the best Saint-Malo accommodation prices here.
Elsewhere in the Brittany region, a land well-known for its rugged coastline and wild waves, there’s stretches of coastline to explore, long-abandoned châteaux to spy, and more hikes than you could hope to walk in one lifetime.
For a more off-the-beaten-track destination as a day trips fromSaint-Malo, consider visiting the beach Fort Guesclin, a tidal island which has since been fortified to an impressive degree. For more wanderlust inspiration, check out our guide to the best day trips from Saint-Malo.
Local Food in Brittany
The best French crepes come from Brittany. That’s a fact. (And it’s worth noting that many of the crêpes are made of buckwheat). Those who love sweet desserts should also sample Kouign-Amann, a local pastry made from plenty of sugar and dollops of butter.
If savoury is more your thing than sweet, it’s worth noting that this area of the world is famous for its cheeses and locally brewed ciders. Highlights of Brittany and nearby Normandy dairy include Pont-l’Eveque, Livarot, Brillat-Savarin, Port Hi.
For fans of all seafood-related dishes, then it’s worth noting that due to Saint Malo’s proximity to the sea, there’s plenty of restaurants serving a sea-inspired menu inside the walled city. Must-try seafood from Brittany includes Moules Marinières (Cancale Mussels) and Cotriade (a kind of fish stew).
Best things to do in Saint Malo
#1 Explore Le Grand Bé (also known as ‘Bey’)
Saint Malo is also home to two islands, lying a couple of hundred meters from the shores of its sandy beaches. Le Grand Be is the final resting place of famous romance writer François-René de Chateaubriand, a native of Saint-Malo and acclaimed writer. His grave faces to the West, towards the sea. At low tide, the tidal island can be approached by foot from nearby Bon-Secours beach.
#2 Spy the Petit Bé (second island of Saint Malo)
Home to a 17th-century fort and battery, this small island lies in close proximity to its neighbouring isle. Petit Bé is also a tidal island and is approachable from the mainland via foot at low tide. The fort was originally constructed and designed to protect the town from the British and Dutch. The fort was made a historic site in 1921 and lay abandoned until 2000 when it was handed over to a local tourism board.
#3 Meander along Les Ramparts de Saint Malo
Like with any walled city, one of the greatest attractions of the city is the walled ramparts themselves! You can walk the entire length of the city; something I highly recommend doing. There’s nothing quite like getting a bird’s eye view to really get the feel of the place.
High and imposing, the ramparts encircle the entire town. Construction of the wall started as early as the 12th century, protecting it from pirates and would be invaders ever since. Improvements were made in the 18th century in order to include more of the town. Around this time, up to three-quarters of the original walls were replaced.
#4 Step inside the Saint-Malo Cathedral
Of all the Cathedrals in France, there are of course many stunning and historical ecclesiastical buildings worth venturing into. The Cathedral of Saint-Malo dates all the way back to the 12th-century, is filled with some stunning stained glass windows, and is dedicated to Saint Vincent of Saragossa. Free to visit, it’s well worth a wander around…
#5 Discover La Cour La Hussaye, a fairytale turret in the heart of Saint Malo
Truth be told, one of the best things to do in Saint Malo is to simply wander around and see where your feet take you. However, whenever there’s a spiralling tower to be seen, you can bet that I’m the first one there to visit…
Whilst wandering along the cobblestoned alleyways and meandering through the charming streets of Saint-Malo, I stumbled upon this real life turret. Curious to find out more, I quickly opened up a search engine!
On Old Postcards of the town, the tower is often referred to as ‘House of Duchess Anne,’ leading me to wonder who exactly Anne was! After all, we share the same name… Unfortunately, I never did find out. It’s presumed that she was once an inhabitant of the rich bourgeoisie who once inhabited the mansion.
The Maison Hussaye is allegedly the oldest house still standing in the city. The turret was constructed as early as the 15th-century, while the house itself was demolished and reconstructed at a later date. During the struggle for the city in 1944, although much of the city was destroyed, the house and tower somehow remained untouched. It was one of the only buildings in the city to do so.
#6 Rue Chat qui Danse, strangest street name in Saint Malo
One of the most amusing parts of the day was stumbling across a little street named ‘Rue Chat quit Danse’ literally translated as ‘road of the dancing cat‘. Back before there were proper street names, it was common to refer to roads and streets by the monuments located by or on them. The Dancing Cat was a local drinking joint, famous for its sailing clientele.
But that’s not all! The ‘Cat’ reference in the road name apparently has two connotations in this instance. Not only was it the name of the bar on the street, but the name was also given in reference to the only soldier who died when one of the local ships was blown up during an Anglo-Dutch attack in the 17th Century.
#7 Relax on the Beaches of Saint Malo
Of all the best things to do in Saint Malo, one of the top activities is to sit, stay and watch the waves roll in at the beach. For a seaside town, with ramparts, the beaches of Saint Malo are surprisingly large, albeit packed.
Visiting at the height of summer, in August, meant that there was literally nowhere left to place your beach towel! As we were only visiting for a couple of hours, we opted not to spend too long lingering along the shoreline, opting instead to discover what else the town had to offer.
#8 Learn about the history of Pirates on Saint Malo
One of the best things about France is that each region has its own unique vibe, culture, cuisine and sometimes even language. Of course, Brittany is no different! This region of France has historically struggled to maintain its own independent streak through the ages.
From having its own language, Breton, to repeatedly resisting the rest of France, Brittany has always strived to be different. The residents of St-Malo (or malouins as they refer to themselves) took this one step further. They repeatedly refused to be ruled by France, or even by Breton laws at a local level. A famous saying from the town is:
“Ni Français, ni Breton, Malouin suis” (I am neither French, nor Breton, but Malouin)
On account of its close proximity to the sea and independent streak, the King of France found Saint-Malo to be the perfect place to source privateers in his missions against the English. Now, if you’re wondering what a privateer is, it’s basically a fancy word for ‘pirate’!
They were also referred to as ‘corsairs’. The city’s residents who took to the seas made a great deal of profit from attacking ships on the high seas, looting and plundering as they went. Often, the missions would translate from sea to land. The pirates from Saint-Malo travelled as far as Plymouth in South Devon, UK.
But the sailors of Saint-Malo hold a much more nefarious title than merely being sailors of questionable morals. A certain sailor from the town, Jacques Cartier, is credited with being the first European to rediscover Canada. He was sent by King Francois I and landed in what is now Quebec in modern-day Canada. Cartier was also apparently the first European to sail down and map the Saint Lawrence River.
#9 Take a day trip to Fort du Guesclin
Fort du Guesclin is perched high atop a rugged rocky outcrop of an island some distance away from the shore and a fortification has been in situ ever since the 13th-century, and perhaps even earlier!
Though you can’t actually visit this tiny and fortified tidal island, the stunning isle can still be admired from afar. After all, there’s a free public beach on the mainland that’s perfect for picnics, paddling in the water, or simply enjoy the Breton coastline.
#10 Take a day trip to the rest of Brittany
From wild coastline to centuries old settlements Brittany has something to offer even the most discerning of traveller. And if you don’t have access to your own mode of transportation? No problem! There are a wealth of beautiful excursions you can take from Saint-Malo without a car.
Things to know before visiting Saint Malo
If you’re looking to visit Saint Malo on your next French choice then you’ve made a great choice! The settlement is filled with historical and quirky attractions and between sampling traditional Breton food and visiting many of the town’s museums, there’s certainly something for everyone!
Before you go, you should know that while English is widely spoken, it’s only polite to learn a few words of the local language, French. Learning a few simple words like ‘hello,’ ‘please,’ ‘thank you,’ and ‘sorry’ is a great place to start. In order to help you get by, I recommend bringing along a simple French Phrasebook like this one.
Saint-Malo (and France in general) uses plug types, types C and E. As such, if you’re travelling from the UK, USA, Canada, and many other destinations, you’ll need to buy an adaptor. I recommend buying a universal travel adaptor that you can use for multiple destinations (rather than buying a new adaptor for each place you visit).
Where to stay in Saint-Malo
Thanks to its status as a top Brittany attraction, the town and its surrounds 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.
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