Bonjour, mes amis! If you’re seeking a family adventure filled with wonder, history, and breathtaking beauty, then Mont Saint Michel in France is your perfect destination! We were lucky to come here twice and have two completely different experiences! I want to share both with you to help you plan your trip there with more knowledge about the options.
Our first time was in November 2019. It was a cold autumn day, and the weather wasn’t perfect. However, Mont Saint Michel was still stunning, with dramatic clouds painting its background. On that occasion, there were very few tourists, and to make it even more perfect, we booked to stay a night on the island. We got a unique chance to stay there when all the tourists went home at the end of the day; it was so peaceful and magical! Walking the little streets in the evening and waking up to the unusual view were the highlights of our first trip.
Our second time there was just a few months ago, in May 2023. Mont Saint Michel was extremely crowded. It was almost impossible to walk through the tiny streets because of the enormous crowds walking through. The wait time at any restaurant was extremely long, and to visit the Abbey, you had to book it in advance. However, the weather was beautiful and warm, and we had a chance to see Mont Saint Michel from a different perspective. So we made the best of it anyway and enjoyed our day on this unique island.
First of all, though, let me tell you a bit about the history behind Mont Saint Michel.
A Glimpse into History of Mont Saint Michel
The story of Mont Saint Michel began in the 8th century when a small oratory was built on the rocky outcrop by Bishop Aubert of Avranches. According to legend, the Archangel Michael appeared to Bishop Aubert in a dream, commanding him to build a church atop the island. Initially, the oratory was known as Mont Tombe, but it later became Mont Saint Michel in honor of the Archangel Michael.
As Mont Saint Michel’s reputation as a sacred site grew, a Benedictine monastery was established on the island in the 10th century. The Abbey became a center of religious and intellectual activity, drawing pilgrims from all over Europe. The faithful believed that the Archangel Michael guided souls to the afterlife, making the Abbey a sought-after destination for spiritual blessings and cures.
Over the centuries, Mont Saint Michel’s strategic location at the mouth of the Couesnon River made it an ideal defensive position. The abbey’s location on a rocky outcrop, surrounded by treacherous tidal waters, acted as a natural fortress. This made it challenging for enemies to attack and contributed to the island’s reputation as an impregnable stronghold.
During the Hundred Years’ War between England and France in the 14th and 15th centuries, the abbey was a significant point of contention. It changed hands several times between the two nations. However, Mont Saint Michel ultimately remained under French control.
In 1979, Mont Saint Michel was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, recognizing its exceptional cultural and historical value. The classification further fueled efforts to safeguard the island’s architectural and natural heritage for future generations.
Interesting facts about Mont Saint Michel
What makes Mont Saint Michel so unique? Here are a few interesting facts we have learned.
Tidal Phenomenon. Mont Saint Michel experiences some of the most dramatic tides in the world. The island’s unique location, situated at the mouth of the Couesnon River in Normandy, France, makes it susceptible to some of the most dramatic tides on the planet. This tidal phenomenon influences the island’s accessibility. In fact, during high tide, Mont Saint Michel becomes an island surrounded by water, cutting off access from the mainland; the water can move at an astonishing pace, transforming the entire landscape quickly. The tidal range at Mont Saint Michel can be as high as 46 feet (14 meters) during enormous spring tides. However, a natural causeway appears during low tide, allowing visitors to walk or take shuttle services to the island. During high tide, the abbey seems to rise majestically from the water, creating a captivating illusion of a floating island. During low tide, vast sandbanks and mudflats are exposed, revealing the intricate ecosystem of the bay.
Quick Sand Danger. The tides create treacherous quicksand-like areas around the base of Mont Saint Michel. These shifting sands add an extra layer of danger for unwary visitors, making it crucial to heed the warnings and follow designated paths. In the past, they acted as a natural defense against invaders, making the island nearly impregnable.
Abbey on Stilts. The Abbey on Stilts, also known as “La Merveille” (The Marvel), is one of the most remarkable architectural features of Mont Saint Michel. It refers to the ingenious construction techniques used to build the abbey on the rocky outcrop, providing stability and resilience against tides and natural elements. The medieval builders used a complex system of wooden stilts and foundations to support the massive weight of the abbey’s structures. These stilts were driven deep into the rock beneath the island, creating a stable base for the abbey. One of the primary reasons for constructing the Abbey on Stilts was to ensure that the buildings remained above the rising waters during high tides.
Unique Address System. Due to the island’s unique topography and historical development, Mont Saint Michel does not have a conventional street address system like most modern cities. Instead, each house on the island has its distinctive name, often passed down through generations, which serves as its address. These names are usually based on historical, religious, or geographical references, reflecting the island’s rich cultural heritage. The unique address system is integral to Mont Saint Michel’s identity. It distinguishes the island from other modern cities and adds to the sense of stepping into a place frozen in time.
Prison Island. During certain periods, the island served as a place of detention and imprisonment for various individuals, including political prisoners and enemies of the state. One of the most notable periods was during the French Revolution in the late 18th century. In fact, during this tumultuous time, the island’s religious significance spared it from destruction, but it was repurposed as a prison to house political opponents, counter-revolutionaries, and others deemed threats to the new regime. It wasn’t easy to be a prisoner in Mont Saint Michel. The remote island location made escape nearly impossible, and prisoners were subjected to cramped and uncomfortable living conditions. Additionally, they had to contend with the ever-changing tides, further restricting movement and making life even more difficult.
Must do on Mont Saint Michel
Although Mont Saint Michel is a small island, several must-see attractions and experiences should be on your itinerary. Here are some of the top things to see and do on this enchanting island:
1. Mont Saint Michel Abbey: The highlight of any visit to Mont Saint Michel is the magnificent Mont Saint Michel Abbey. Explore the abbey’s Gothic architecture, admire the stunning views from the top, and immerse yourself in the rich history of this spiritual landmark. Book here.
2. La Merveille: Marvel at the remarkable architectural feat “La Merveille” or The Marvel. This section of the abbey complex includes impressive halls and cloisters built on stilts.
3. The Ramparts: Stroll along the medieval ramparts encircling the island. These impressive fortifications protected Mont Saint Michel from attacks from the English during the hundred-year War. The ramparts offer breathtaking views of the surrounding bay, the vast stretches of sand at low tide, and the picturesque village below.
4. The Village Streets: Wander through the narrow, cobblestone streets of the village, lined with charming shops, cafes, and houses. Absorb the medieval ambiance, and don’t forget to look out for the unique house names that serve as the island’s address system.
5. The Grand Degré: The Grand Degré is the main stairway that leads from the village to the abbey. While it may be a steep climb, it offers a memorable and rewarding ascent to the abbey’s entrance.
6. Evening Light and Sound Show: During the summer, consider staying for the evening light and sound show, where the abbey’s façade is illuminated, and historical images are projected onto the walls, creating a magical and immersive experience. Unfortunately, we didn’t have a chance to see this; we might have to come back for it!
7. Butterflies Garden: If you’re traveling with children or are interested in nature, visit the Butterfly Garden on the island, which houses various butterfly species and beautiful gardens.
8. Enjoy Local Cuisine: Savor the local specialties, such as the traditional omelets (keep reading to learn more about them) and delicious crepes in one of the island’s charming restaurants.
9. Walk on the Bay: If you have the opportunity and are accompanied by a knowledgeable guide, consider walking on the bay’s sands during low tide, gaining insight into the unique ecosystem and its natural wonders.
Traditional food in Mont Saint Michel
I want to share the story behind the famous omelet of Mont Saint Michel because I believe it is interesting, and it explains why today it is considered a culinary delight that has become synonymous with the island commune’s gastronomy.
The omelet is also known as “La Mère Poulard Omelette,” the name is derived from the woman who first popularized it, Anne “La Mère” Poulard. She was a cook and innkeeper who lived on Mont Saint Michel during the 19th century. Her omelet became so famous that it became an integral part of the island’s culinary heritage.
Traditional Recipe: The La Mère Poulard Omelette is made with a simple yet flavorful combination of eggs, butter, salt, and pepper. What sets it apart is the unique cooking method used by La Mère Poulard herself, who would whisk the eggs vigorously and cook them over an open wood fire. The cooking technique involves whipping the egg whites separately to create a light and airy texture. The eggs are poured onto a hot griddle, and the mixture is expertly folded to form a fluffy and delicious omelet. Traditionally, the omelet was cooked over an open wood fire, adding a smoky flavor that enhances its taste. Today, while the omelet is still cooked over an open flame in some restaurants on the island, modern kitchen stoves are also used.
The omelet gained widespread fame after La Mère Poulard’s inn became a popular destination for pilgrims and travelers visiting Mont Saint Michel. The restaurant still exists today and continues to serve the famous omelet to visitors. The La Mère Poulard Omelette is not just a culinary delight; it is also a spectacle to behold. The skilled chefs who prepare the omelet often do so in front of diners, showcasing their expertise and adding to the dining experience. The omelet has become a significant tourist attraction on Mont Saint Michel.
The famous omelet of Mont Saint Michel, known as the La Mère Poulard Omelette, is a culinary treasure that has stood the test of time. Its simple yet extraordinary preparation and the legacy of La Mère Poulard have made it an iconic dish on the island and a must-try experience for any visitor. Tasting this delectable omelet not only offers a delightful culinary experience but also connects you to the rich culinary heritage of Mont Saint Michel and its legendary cook, La Mère Poulard. If you visit Mont Saint Michel, stop at one of the restaurants or La Mère Poulard restaurant and taste it, and you will not regret it!
Pros and Cons of Visiting Mont Saint Michel
After having two very different experiences visiting this unique island, there are a few observations about whether it is worth visiting it and when is the best time.
Pros of Visiting Mont Saint Michel:
Spectacular Scenery: Mont Saint Michel’s picturesque setting is breathtaking, with its fairy-tale-like appearance rising majestically from the tidal waters. The stunning views provide numerous photo opportunities and unforgettable memories.
Rich Historical and Cultural Significance: Mont Saint Michel’s history spans centuries, making it a treasure for history enthusiasts. Exploring the abbey, ramparts, and medieval streets offers an immersive experience of the past, evoking the lives of knights, monks, and pilgrims.
Unique Tidal Phenomenon: The island’s tidal shifts are a rare natural spectacle, allowing visitors to witness the changing landscape as the tide ebbs and flows. The tides add a sense of wonder and uniqueness to the visit.
Family-Friendly Activities: Mont Saint Michel offers a wide range of family-friendly activities, from exploring the abbey to the butterfly garden and ramparts walk. It’s an engaging and educational experience for visitors of all ages.
Culinary Delights: The island’s eateries serve delicious French cuisine, including traditional omelets, crepes, and regional specialties. It’s an opportunity to savor authentic French flavors in a charming ambiance.
Architectural Marvel: The Abbey’s Gothic architecture is awe-inspiring, with intricate details and stunning craftsmanship. Visiting the abbey offers a chance to marvel at the ingenuity of medieval builders.
Cons of Visiting Mont Saint Michel:
Crowds: Mont Saint Michel is a popular tourist destination, which can get crowded, especially during peak seasons. This may impact the overall experience and make certain areas feel congested.
Limited Accessibility: The island’s cobbled streets and steep staircases may be challenging for visitors with mobility issues or families with strollers. It requires extra effort for those with physical limitations.
Weather Variability: Mont Saint Michel experiences unpredictable weather changes due to its coastal location. Visitors should be prepared for sudden rain showers or fluctuations in temperature.
Commercialization: Over the years, the island’s popularity has led to commercialization, with souvenir shops, restaurants, and other tourist-focused businesses lining the streets. Some visitors may find it detracts from the authentic historical ambiance.
Tourist Prices: As a popular tourist destination, prices for goods and services on the island can be higher than in other less-touristy regions of France.
Limited Accommodation: While Mont Saint Michel offers accommodation options, the selection is relatively limited compared to larger cities. Booking in advance is recommended, especially during peak seasons.
Accessibility and Transportation: Accessing Mont Saint Michel can be more challenging for those relying on public transportation, as the island’s location requires additional planning and time.
How to get to Mont Saint Michel
Reaching Mont Saint Michel is an exciting part of the experience, as it involves crossing the causeway and exploring the island’s unique landscape. Whether you arrive by car, bus, shuttle, on foot, or in a horse-drawn carriage, the journey to Mont Saint Michel sets the stage for an unforgettable visit to this iconic island commune. Here’s how to reach the island:
By Car: If you are traveling by car, you can reach Mont Saint Michel by taking the A84 motorway (also known as the Autoroute des Estuaires) if you are coming from the east or west. From the A84, take the exit signposted to Mont Saint Michel, and then follow the signs for the island. Parking areas are available on the mainland near the causeway.
By Public Transportation: If you prefer public transportation, you can take a train to nearby towns like Pontorson or Rennes and then continue by bus or shuttle service to Mont Saint Michel. There are regular bus services from Pontorson to the island, and the journey takes 15-20 minutes.
Shuttle Buses: Once you arrive near the island, shuttle buses run frequently between the mainland parking areas and Mont Saint Michel. These shuttle buses are a convenient way to get to the island without worrying about parking, and they are free, but be aware that there may be long lines during peak season!
Horse Carriages: Another charming way to reach the island is by horse-drawn carriage. These carriages provide a picturesque ride along the causeway and add a touch of old-world charm to your visit.
Private Tours: If you prefer a guided experience, there are private tours available that include transportation, guided tours of the abbey, and a chance to explore the island’s history and culture with a knowledgeable guide.
IMPORTANT!!! It’s essential to check the tidal schedule before your visit, as Mont Saint Michel is surrounded by water at high tide. The causeway is covered by water during high tide, and access to the island is restricted for safety reasons. Plan your visit during low tide to ensure easy access.
Visiting Mont Saint Michel with our family was an unforgettable and enriching experience. It perfectly blended history, natural beauty, and cultural charm. The island’s unique setting, with its iconic abbey perched on a rocky outcrop surrounded by vast mudflats and dramatic tides, provided an enchanting backdrop for a family adventure. Having had both experiences, I will admit that although we enjoyed the warm weather, the crowds made our latest trip there a bit overwhelming and limited our ability to move around. On the other hand, our first visit during the low season was perfect, mainly because it felt like we had the island to ourselves. So if I had to recommend a time to go, it would be in low season. You might miss out on warm weather and other activities that occur only during the summer, but you can genuinely experience the area’s magical atmosphere.
Either time you decide to visit, rest assured it will be a beautiful sight. Wishing you happy travels on your adventures here!!!
Do you want to know another very unique thing we did in France? We navigated the Canal du Midi! Click here to read the full post about it.