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A Guide to the Best Things to do in Mont Saint Michel

It was a grey, stormy day when we pulled up the car and parked in the Mont Saint Michel car park. The first few raindrops of the day were spluttering on us, and I was silently cursing myself for leaving my warm winter coat back home in Paris.

It might have been August, the best month of the year for weather in Normandy, but that didn’t mean that it was warm! Now, of course, when I actually saw the UNESCO world heritage site for the first time, all thoughts of being cold flew straight out of my head as fast as the wind was blowing. After all, it’s not every day you’re standing in front of one of the most beautiful islands in the world! 

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Why you must Visit Mont Saint Michel on your next trip to France!

If there’s one thing that you make sure you do in Northern France, then make it a visit to Mont Saint-Michel! Of all the UNESCO world heritage sites in France (and there are a lot!), Mont-Saint-Michel is probably the best known and easily the most impressive. The conical tidal island has a rich and varied history; making it the perfect French travel destination for culture and history lovers. Some other reasons to visit Mont Saint Michel include…

Mont Saint Michel is in Normandy

If you’re from Brittany and reading this, then I’m sorry! The two French regions of Brittany and Normandy have long debated as to who owns Mont-Saint-Michel. The conical island sits on the apex between the two French regions, leading to a centuries-long debate as to who can claim the island.

As of now, 2017, the island is part of the Normandy region of France, more precisely the arrondissement of Avranches. Overall, a visit to Mont Saint Michel is easily one of the very best things to do in Normandy.

Mont Saint Michel consistently ranks as one of the top 5 attractions to see in France!

Mont-Saint-Michel is one of the most popular tourist destinations that France has to offer. All 2.5 million visitors who visit the site annually can’t be wrong! I mean, that’s more than the populations of Fiji and Cyprus put together!

The Island had been on my french bucket list for a while and so visiting for the first time was a dream come true! As soon as I stepped out of the car upon arrival, my jaw dropped even wider open than it would when I see a macaron. I couldn’t help myself. Come rain or shine, the island is breathtakingly beautiful…

The island is incredibly impressive!

The entire island is formed of a large mass of rock, jutting up from the sandbar. At low tide, the island is approachable on foot (there’s now a bridge connecting the island from mainland France so there’s full-time access to the island by foot). 

Aword of warning: crossing to Mont Saint Michel on foot, across the sandbar is incredibly dangerous and not recommended. Tidal surges can occur and have been known to happen. Also, a local waterworks regularly empties water into the area, making water surges all the more likely. Oh, and did I mention that there’s quicksand? So, use the bridge, which is both safe and free to use!

The architecture is near impossible

A road spirals from the bottom of the island to the top, where the abbey itself is situated. In between, all manner of buildings are fitted into the tight space like the jigsaw pieces of an overly complicated Tetris game.

Over the centuries, the island has gone massive renovations, the current abbey having been finished in the 19th Century. The prison was closed on the island in the late 18th century and the buildings of the island were in particularly poor repair.

The infamous architect Viollet-le-Duc was brought in to oversee the reparation project (Viollet-le-Duc, who in my opinion made some poor decisions when it comes to Carcassone, Southern France).

He added the now iconic gothic features to the original, and simpler structure. Making things ‘appear’ older was a key element in romanticism and is why the Houses of Parliament in the UK are also built in the gothic style.

Cimetière du Mont Saint-Michel

A history of Mont Saint Michel

For over 1000 years, the island has been home to a monastery for which the island is named. The island itself has been inhabited for much longer and is of strategic importance to the French coastline. Mont Saint-Michel even appears in the Bayeux Tapestry…

From the 9th century, dukes from Normandy supported the monks in the local area to build an abbey on the elusive island, dedicating it all the while to the glory of God. Soon enough, the island gained Europe-wide fame as a place of pilgrimage and a centre for learning.

During the 12th century, there was a renaissance in France. This ‘original’ renaissance period has since been forgotten in light of the more recent one. But at the time, Mont-saint-Michel was a hive of activity and one of the greatest hubs of learning in Europe.

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Illustrators and manuscript creators from all over Europe converged on the mount throughout the centuries to share a love of learning. Luckily for us, the monks here preserved many works of art and pieces of literature that exist nowhere else to this day. Without the monks, scribes, and illustrators that lived on Mont-Saint-Michel, much of what has been passed onto us would otherwise have been lost.

The same order of monks who built the fortress also created the church atop of Saint Michael’s Mount in Marazion, England, meaning that this site is inextricably linked to the Westcountry in England. I spent years living in South-West England so I love this personal historical link to the island!

During the French revolution, the island was used to house prisoners of the French revolution.In 1979, the site was made a UNESCO world heritage site, officially cementing the importance of this small chunk of land, a couple of kilometres from mainland France.

Tips for visiting Mont Saint Michel

The island is incredibly beautiful 

If you give yourself just one reason to visit Mont-Saint-Michel, then make it this: it’s simply breathtakingly beautiful! You have to believe me when I say that pictures of Mont-Saint-Michel simply just don’t do it justice! The site is just so beautiful and you have to see it to believe it…

Is Mont St Michel a tidal island?

The conical structure sits atop of a tidal island, meaning that a couple of times a day when the tide comes in, the island is completely cut off from mainland France- well, almost. Surprisingly, silt has built up around the island over time.

This is both as a result of local farming on the mainland and the addition of the bridge linking the island to the mainland. As a result, there is now a constant battle to ensure that Mont-Saint-Michel remains a tidal island, and does not become just another part of the Northern French coastline!

Purchase your Mont Saint Michel tickets in advance

If you want to save precious time during your visit to the ancient Abbey, then I recommend purchasing your Mont-Saint Michel tickets well-ahead of your visit. This way, you’ll make the most of your time at the Mount, without having to waste precious exploration time by waiting in extra queues!

Bring warm clothes (I’m talking coat and scarf as a minimum!)

As I learned, much to my dismay, just because you’re visiting the Mount in August doesn’t mean that the weather will be good! Bring warm clothes with you as the tidal nature of the island, as well as its precarious position along the coastline, means that Mont Saint Michel is often cold, even when all other areas in the region seem relatively mild and warm.

Visit Mont Saint Michel during the offseason

As one of the most visited monuments in France, it should come as no surprise that the place is always packed! However, the majority of tourists visit in peak season: July and August. If you want to somewhat avoid the crowds, then avoiding the island during these months is advisable.

Furthermore, local hotel prices, both on the island and on nearby mainland France fluctuate wildly depending on the season. Visiting Mont Saint Michel in the shoulder seasons, or even during the off-season will save a lot of money in terms of accommodation, and perhaps time as there is a lot less traffic around the area!

Visit the Mount early in the morning (or late at night!)

Not only will you get the best lighting if you visit closer to one of the day’s golden hours, but you’ll avoid much of the crowds which flock to the island during the day. Visit early in the morning if you wish to see the interior of the abbey, and visit later in the day if you’re not so bothered about seeing the abbey’s decor but still wish to miss many of the tourists. A late night jaunt to the castle will also ensure the best of both worlds, enabling you to see the castle both in the day, and the iconic way it is lit up by night.

Leave yourself adequate time to see everything!

If you are visiting Mont Saint Michel as part of a day trip from Paris, then make sure that you leave early in the morning, giving yourself plenty of time to see everything that the island and its surrounding bay has to offer.

Not only is it possible to visit the abbey, but there are also many streets to explore, the bay to see, a few small (yet touristic) museums and an old part of town, complete with timber-framed houses. Oh, and whilst there make sure not to miss the cider that the region is famous for!

Bring your camera along!

If you love photography (and maybe even if you don’t), I highly recommend bringing your camera. Of all the practical tips for visiting Mont Saint Michel I’ve mentioned, this may seem frivolous in comparison. However, it’s not everyday that you’re able to visit a UNESCO world-famous one-of-a-kind tidal island, especially one that has been inhabited for over 1000 years.

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tips for visiting mont saint michel normandy franceTips for visiting Mont Saint Michel, Normandy, France

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Stella Asteria

Wednesday 19th of April 2017

Such a fantastic place! Thank you for the tips and photos! I look forward to visiting! xo Stella www.stellaasteria.com

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