10 things to do in Saint-Malo in one day, France
Traveling around France in a rental car allowed me to go to Brittany on my own, see the sights of Saint-Malo, appreciate the beauty of the city, find out where to eat cheaply in downtown Saint-Malo; to learn more, read the story of a trip through the cities of Brittany
Another trip to France on our own was aimed primarily at the Abbey of Mont Saint-Michel, and now that we’ve made acquaintance with the main attraction, everything else has faded somewhat. No, the ancient Le Mans and especially Fougères with its citadel also looked chic, but after a sad parting with the island monastery, it seemed to us that the good mood will return unless in Paris. But in fact it came back much earlier, the next morning …
Everything started in a mundane way: after breakfast, we walked around the hotel, took a few more pictures of Mont Saint-Michel, visited the local supermarket. I mention the latter move for a reason, because the stupid opening hours in France have failed us several times: on Sundays, for example, all supermarkets are closed, only Carrefour branches are open, and that until noon. So I recommend making a stock of snacks, juice and water for everyone who is going to travel in France on their own – better to have everything at hand than in the evening to rush around in a futile search of working outlets.
When all the stuff was done, the keys to the room and packed in the trunk, we set a course for Saint-Malo, looking for gas stations. Gas stations in France are almost all automatic, and when you are dealing with them you need to take into account a number of nuances. Firstly, cash machines do not always accept cash. Second, when you pay by credit card, the money is deducted not as we do: first, the card is blocked in a hundred euros, then the cost of the fuel in the tank is deducted from it, and the remaining money hangs in the block God knows how long. In other words, if you go to the gas station several times, you are left without a significant amount for a long time. So, it is better to use French petrol stations only when you run out of fuel. Thirdly, there is usually no staff at gas stations, and if something happens there is no one to help. We were in a stupid situation when I had only the cap of the gas tank cap in my hands, while the cap itself is stuck in the neck. There was nothing to grab it, and if it were not for the kind attitude of some Frenchmen who came to refuel a few minutes after our embarrassment, who knows how it would have ended. But with the help of pliers and some mother we got the plug out, and a little later I, cursing quietly at the rental company, drove west…
Having already experienced parking in France, I knew that the best place to look for free spaces was near supermarkets. According to my estimation, there was nothing to catch in the center of Saint-Malo, since everything there is paid, but on Rue ville P e pin there was a promising “Carrefour”. We went to it, but we did not reach the place, because we found a better option: between Rue Bougainville and Rue Godard there is a free parking lot, where the old part of Saint-Malo is about fifteen minutes away. And near the supermarket I had been looking at, by the way, there was no parking…
Our first steps through the city did not reveal anything interesting, but that all changed when from the new development area Les Bas Sablon we came to the promenade. “Wow,” was all I could squeeze out as the ancient, moss-covered walls opened up to us on the other side of the bay. And all the way, as we stomped past the piers where the boats and ferries to England, Jersey and Guernsey depart for St. Malo, it was impossible to take my eyes off the wonderful picture…
History of St. Malo dates back to the end of the XV century, when the land along the coast came under the authority of the French crown. Before this time there were only forts, and even the most ardent patriots of their native land do not dare to claim that the city existed in the early Middle Ages, not to mention the antiquity. Yes, in the Middle Ages there was a village of Saint-Servant, but that’s all. But then Saint-Malo quickly surpassed all the other, even the older ports in importance, as its convenient strategic location allowed to solve two important problems: to conduct relations with the American continent and threaten the trade of the sworn enemies of the English. Several major French expeditions set sail from the city harbor, so that locals could boast familiarity with leading domestic scientists and navigators, among them Jacques Cartier, who discovered and explored Canada. As for the second function, by the end of the 17th century Saint-Malo had acquired such a bad reputation as a corsair’s nest that British merchants naturally wept bitter tears at the mention of this toponym. Of course, the fleet of the future ruler of the seas repeatedly tried to cope with the outrages in the English Channel, but did not succeed even during the open siege. And understandably so: looking at the imposing, thick bastions, encircling the historic core of the city, you immediately realize that they can not be taken with a raid. Especially striking are the walls of Saint-Malo from the sea, where we arrived a little later. In the meantime, the road led us north, along the promenade of Saint-Louis – I wanted first to stop by the tourist office to get a detailed map of the area and to get information on what to see first and where to eat in Saint-Malo.
The tourist office was found, as promised by the downloaded map on the Internet, on the shore of the yacht marina, near the gate of Saint Vincent. There, by the way, is a stop of the mini-train, which can tour Saint-Malo for quite reasonable money – to put up 6 euros for a half-hour trip on the forces, it seems, everyone. However, the tourist train does not go to the bastions, and this is a big minus, because the panoramas opening from the height of the walls, became for me personally the most striking impression of the city.
We reached the seashore soon enough, but first we visited the picturesque complex of walls and towers just outside the gates of Saint Vincent. It was the castle of the Duchess of Anne, built in the first quarter of the fifteenth century. Today it houses a purely peaceful institution, the City Museum, but in the past the citadel served the rulers of Brittany as a reliable defense. Suffice it to say that its main tower has grown to a height of 35 meters, and it immediately becomes clear how formidable St. Malo Castle looks.
After taking pictures of our surroundings, we hurried to climb the crest of the nearest wall and were fascinated by the views. To the left stretched the beach with the villas lined up in the background, with white sails in the distance, and to the right a fort rose out of the sea and groups of people paddled toward it on the beach sand. I was also going to follow their example, as it was silly to pass by such an interesting sight of Saint-Malo as the Fort Grand Be, but I decided to postpone the tour for later, devoting time to a walk along the shore first. So we slowly made our way in a circle, stopping now and then to capture another picture.
The walls of Saint-Malo stretch for a total of 1,750 meters, the product of centuries of work, the construction of a system of fortifications ended only at the end of the seventeenth century. The city later grew and the ring of defenses had to be expanded, so that the total area of the historic center increased one and a half times to 24 hectares. The guide to Saint-Malo recommends comparing the size of the old quarters with the area of the Tuileries Park in Paris for greater clarity, and I have nothing more to add to this example.
Along the way we came across a couple of monuments placed in honor of historical figures. The first statue depicted Robert Suerkuf, a famous corsair, who operated at the end of the eighteenth century and seized about fifty merchant ships. Here is what they call a career “from the dirt to the princes”: engaged in maritime robbery, the man from the bottom got the title of baron and made a handsome fortune. Moreover, French sailors named several warships after him.
A quarter of an hour later we made the acquaintance of another eminent personage, Jacques Cartier. This Saint-Malo native explored the Canadian coast in the 1530s and 40s and established a French colony there. And while the corsair Surcouf is depicted in a belligerent pose, his countryman-geographer is characterized by a certain pensiveness.
From the height of the walls the beaches of Saint-Malo were clearly visible. They are not equipped for recreation, but the wide strip of sand was crowded with sunbathers, and only a small part of them had brought umbrellas and mats, while the majority just lay there. It was like this all the way through the bastions, until we went down and looked around the old quarters.
In fact, they weren’t all that old: during World War II, the city was severely damaged and four out of every five historic houses were destroyed. The post-war restoration allowed the center of Saint-Malo to be restored to its former appearance and it is now a pleasure to wander the streets.
Over the next couple of hours we discovered many pleasant nooks and crannies and saw two of St. Malo’s religious sites. The first was the Cathedral of Saint Vincent, which occupies a large area in the northern part of the city. It began to be built in the XII century, and since the work was delayed, the building is a nontrivial mishmash of architectural styles. The nave and the transept are Romanesque, the huge tower is made according to Gothic canons, the facade is neoclassical, and the spire was finished in the nineteenth century. Inside there are Romanesque capitals, decorated with intricate compositions of dragons, mermaids and other sea creatures, often depicted on old maps.
Another interesting site was the Chapel of Saint-North, which looks rather modest but is very expressive. The building, built in 1743, replaced an older structure of the XVII century.
During the walk we repeatedly came across pleasant establishments where you can eat in the center of Saint-Malo quite inexpensively. Many restaurants offered set dinner for 15-18 euros for three courses, and some of them put tables outside in the sun, and yet the influx of visitors is not experienced. The greater was our surprise when one of the main streets, we met a decent-sized queue for ice cream “Gouffres” – before the counter there were twenty people. Either the guidebook of Saint-Malo recommended this place, or it was mentioned in “Lonely Planet Bretagne”, but the excitement personally really struck me. We, for example, managed perfectly well with ice cream in another cafe a couple of blocks away. So we took a couple of balls for 2 and a half euros and made dainty in some nice garden.
Note that buying souvenirs in Saint-Malo is not a problem, a walk through the city quickly proved it. Just do not search in the area of the cathedral and the tourist office, the prices there seemed to me overpriced. We found a couple of shops with much better deals near the southern gate of Porte Dinan – you have to go right through them and then a little further ahead, and the stores where you can buy souvenirs from Saint-Malo will be in sight. Among other things, they sell postcards and albums about Mont Saint-Michel and other cities in Brittany, and you can also find magnets.
We went to the last Saint-Malo we planned to see in a cheerful mood hoping to add the sea views to our impressions. But we have replenished our piggy bank with quite different pictures: while the tide had managed to cut off Grand Beau Fort from the mainland. Frankly speaking, I couldn’t believe my eyes for a long time: it seemed that only recently people had been wandering and people resting on the sandy strip, and now the sea splashed here… And the tide was very good, and water covered about two thirds of the beach width. Here we sincerely lamented that the day before a similar tide had not flooded the Mont Saint-Michel area…
Since we had visited the historic center and the main attractions of Saint-Malo, we decided to spend the rest of the day in the resort town of Dinard, located across the strait. It is so close that it takes only 10 minutes to get there; I checked the booklet I got from the tourist office. It turned out that the boats from Saint-Malo to Dinar go every 30-40 minutes, the price in summer is 5 euros, in low season to pay for the crossing to 30 cents less. Return ticket costs 7.80 and 7.20 euros respectively. Also the schedule of cruises from Saint-Malo told us that those who want to ride on the sea can go to Dinan, get to Chosy and Landes islands, and even move west, in the direction where the pink granite coast is; the end point of such a journey by water is the famous Cape Freel.
At the same time, I had to study the flight schedules to Guernsey and Jersey and English cities: since our way to the car passed by the terminal where the ferries to England depart, my wife turned there, as she put it, “to powder her nose”, and while I was waiting for her, I noticed the catchy advertisement that promised a great shopping in the British-owned Channel Islands – there is duty-free trade, and therefore prices are sort of lower. The standard cost of trip from Saint-Malo to Guernsey and back about 75 euros, the advertising booklets promised to reduce this figure almost twice, up to 40 euros. The trip is only 2 hours, even for 1 day you can turn around if you set a goal of shopping in England.
Saint-Malo: everything a tourist needs to know
Saint-Malo is a beautiful old town in Brittany on the coast of the English Channel. What impresses most about Saint-Malo is its rugged and free atmosphere – for centuries the town was considered free, belonging to neither England, nor Brittany and France. Tourists love the city for its medieval fortresses and towers, its wide sandy beaches and powerful tides.
A super brief history of Saint-Malo
A small Celtic village became a city in the 6th century AD when the Britons, who were crowding the islands with Anglo-Saxons, tried to move to the mainland. The town was named after St. Malo, one of the seven founders of Brittany.
Like all Bretons, the inhabitants of Saint-Malo have always been noted for their wilfulness. The golden age of the free city fell in the 16th century, when they managed to overthrow the French governor and in doing so defend their independence from the English. The natives did not identify themselves as any nationality and called themselves the Maloins.
The town’s protagonists:
- Corsair King Surcuff, who sank dozens of English ships,
- Jacques Cartier, navigator, discoverer of Canada,
- Honorary Citizen François René de Chateaubriand, the famous writer born in Saint-Malo.
Of course, to be fair, Saint-Malo suffered a lot during World War II, it was occupied. Many historic buildings were destroyed, but those that somehow survived were carefully restored. And now you can not say that there is nothing to see in the city.
How to reach Saint-Malo?
Saint-Malo is probably the most visited city in Brittany. Therefore, or transport to the city is organized quite accessible. Most often, tourists get by train from Paris – it is fast and convenient, but there are other options.
Trains from Paris to Saint-Malo depart from Montparnasse station. The trip lasts about 3 hours. It is better to buy tickets online in advance (for example, on this website), because prices tend to increase by the day of departure. Approximate cost is approximately 50 €.
It is possible to travel with a transfer in Rennes. Such a route is almost the same in terms of time. But if you take tickets with a small stopover, you can also see the ancient city of Rennes.
To go to Saint-Malo from Paris, you can take the night intercity bus. It leaves after 11 p.m. and arrives in the destination city at 9 a.m. It would not be a bad option, if not for the change in Nantes at 5 am. So keep in mind that you won’t get much sleep on this trip. But we told you anyway, because the ticket costs only 18€ (can be booked here).
The most pirate way to get to Saint-Malo is by yourself. Particular fans can also cover 400 km by bicycle. But a rental car is somewhat more comfortable and faster. The road from Paris takes about 4.5 hours. Part of the tracks on the route is paid, the passage will cost 25 euros.
It is best to rent a car in advance on this site. So you can choose a suitable class of car, know the cost in advance and order it directly to the airport at your arrival.
How long does it take to visit Saint-Malo?
Very often tourists see Saint-Malo in just one light day or even a few hours. The city is part of a two-day tour of Normandy from Paris (you can read the offer here). The historic part of Saint-Malo is really small.
Why stop in Saint-Malo for a couple of days? If only for the sake of spending the night in a pirate fortress and watching the local tides, they will surprise you with their speed and stunning power, the areas of exposed rocks and beaches are amazing.
“Read the article – Holidays in Brittany: 10 ideas.
Where to stay in Saint-Malo?
Of course, you have to stay in the historic center. Without the medieval flavor, the trip would not be the same at all. We’ve picked you three of the most popular hotels in Saint-Malo below. See all available options at this link.
Golden Tulip Saint Malo – Le Grand Bé
The hotel is located in the historic center of Intra Mouros, opposite Grand Bé Island and Fort Nacional. The harbor is only a 5-minute walk away.
The hotel has rooms in different categories and capacities, breakfast can be included in the room rate or paid extra.
Address: 1 place de Freres Lamennais
Quic En Groigne
The hotel is also located in a fortress, close to the beach of Mol. Breakfast is served on the terrace or in the room.
Address: 8 Rue D’estrées
Hotel Particulier Ascott
Hotel Particulier Ascott is a 3* hotel outside the city center, but it is in a historic building, surrounded by a garden, and very pleasant to relax in the summer. Hotel is 400 m from the beach and 2 km from the city center.
Address: 35 rue du Chapitre
Main attractions in Saint-Malo
Even if you’re not staying in the Intra Mouros area you really must visit the Citadel of Saint Malo, and wander the streets and walk along the beaches outside, at low tide of course. There are a total of 83 listed monuments and it would be impossible to list them all so a booklet is available at the tourist office in the St. Malo esplanade in Saint-Vincent.
Another attraction that can only be visited at low tide is the island of Grand-Bé, where Chateaubriand’s tomb is located.
The view of Fort National can be seen from the northern wall of the fortress and from Sillon beach. Like many of the city’s fortifications, it was built in the 17th century by the architect Vauban, the same architect who built Strasbourg’s causeway. The fort too can only be visited at low tide. The tour of the fortifications and armories lasts 35 minutes. Tickets cost 5 €, children 6-16 years old are 3 €.
One of the oldest buildings of the city is the Cathedral of Saint-Malo dedicated to St. Vincent. The high spire on the bell tower can be seen from afar. Its construction began in the 12th century and was completed in the 15th. The temple absorbed the influences of the Gothic and Renaissance. As in many churches in France, entry is free, but it is important to maintain silence.
One of the oldest and most significant buildings of the city is the Tower of the Solidor. It was built in the 14th century and serves as a fine example of medieval architecture. Inside is the International Museum of Long-Distance Navigation, which tells the story of the discovery of Cape Horn, the history and development of shipbuilding. On the top floor you can visit the observation deck.
If you would like to explore the city in a short time, choose sightseeing tours of the city.
You will be taken through the narrow streets of the fortress in half an hour by a small tourist train of Saint-Malo. It starts from the tourist office. On this walk you will enjoy the medieval flavor of the city and do not get lost in its alleys. Rides cost 5€ for passengers under 10 years old and 7€ for older passengers.
To extend the radius of the city tour you can take a sightseeing bus with open top, which runs with two stops, where you can get off to take a photo or view the sights in detail, and then continue the ride.
The trip lasts 40 minutes. The ticket price is the same as for the tourist train.
- The 1st stop is in the Cité d’Alet area. Here you can see the remains of Fort d’Alet, the Solidor Tower and the memorial of 1939-1945.
- The 2nd stop is in the Courtoisville area, east of the historic city center.
Walking along the beaches of Saint-Malo
The most beautiful thing to do in Saint-Malo is to walk along the beaches from Sillon Beach and the Courtoisville area further east along the coastal strip. You’ll see many 18th-19th century old villas, but don’t forget that they’re all private property and it’s impolite to enter the grounds uninvited.
The best panoramic view of the bay of Saint-Malo is from Pointe de la Varde. From here you can see the old town of Saint-Malo, the large beach of Sillon and the many islands in the bay. Pay attention to the color of the sea, it is emerald green in this place. This is why this coast is called Emerald.
Another 20 minutes along the avenue Ward and you get to the district Rotheneuf. Here on the rocky shore, unknown sculptors have carved many figures out of stone. Find this picturesque place. You can take bus number 6 back to the city center. The walk will take at least 2 hours, the return trip by bus is 30 minutes.
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Oyster farms in Cancal.
A few kilometers east of Saint-Malo, visit the town of Cancal, the pride of the entire Brittany region and the oyster capital. It’s best to book an excursion to an oyster farm where you’ll see how farmers work and how clams are grown and visit an exhibition of clams from around the world. You can also take part in an oyster tasting.
On a walk along the shore near the farm, you will get to know the algae growing on the shores and learn about the beneficial and medicinal properties of these plants. In Kankala, you can settle for anything, even seaweed tartare. Local sea farmers know what they’re doing.
For just the freshest local oysters, head to L’Ormeau Restaurant (4 quai Thomas, Cancale). Half a dozen oysters will cost you €18.50 and they’ll be the best oysters you’ll ever have.
What to try in Saint-Malo?
The seaside town is famous for its seafood, no surprise there. Be sure to try the local dishes of mussels, scallops, shrimp, or just grab a plate of seafood (un plat de fruit de mer).
Don’t forget the crepes, the national Breton dish. You can take them to go, so that you don’t have to spend precious time sitting in a restaurant. Be sure to appreciate the local unsweetened pancakes made from buckwheat and rye flour, called galette. Watch out for seagulls, a picnic on the beach may be attempted.
Another traditional Breton delicacy is the sweet “butter cake”, as the name Kouign Amann translates. You can find it in all the bakeries in Saint-Malo. It is excellent apart from its insane caloric content.
The best restaurants in Saint-Malo
Don’t forget to feel like not only a free corsair, but also a wealthy merchant ship owner. Dining at a good restaurant with a beautiful view of the sea is a long-lasting experience.
In front of the famous Sillon beach in the Antinéa hotel of the same name is a restaurant overlooking the ocean. The restaurant has a very friendly atmosphere and serves fresh and regional products. A three course lunch costs 27€.
Address: 53-55, Chaussée du Sillon
Le Cap Horn Restaurant
This is one of the best gourmet restaurants in all of Brittany, located in the heart of the Grand Hôtel des Thermes. A dinner there usually costs €50-60 per person.
Address: Le Grand Hôtel des Thermes, 100 Boulevard Hébert
Les 7 Mers
This restaurant is also located on the promenade of the Sillon beach. It offers exquisite seafood dishes. In 2020 the restaurant earned a mention in the Michelin Guide. Dinner costs 50-95 €.
Address: 64 chaussée du Sillon
The rugged beauty of Brittany and Saint-Malo is not for everyone. Pampered lovers of tropical islands will not find an appropriate beach vacation here. The Emerald Coast is a land of hardened romantics, in whose hearts beats a fresh north wind.