On a long weekend in May, we set out to explore one of the cutest spots in northern France – Saint Malo in beautiful Brittany. We set out on a road trip from Paris for a couple of days, heading north to a world that seems to be light years away from the City of Lights. In this travel guide to Saint-Malo, we’ll explore how to get the most out of your one-day visit.
Brief Saint-Malo Background
Saint-Malo is a walled port city in Brittany, northern France. Its origins date back to the 6th century when a Breton monk arrived from Wales and gave it its name. Throughout the centuries, Saint Malo’s importance immensely grew thanks to its tidal harbor which by then was protected by forts dotted on islands in the bay. In fact, many famous voyages departed the harbor at Saint-Malo including Jacques Cartier’s expedition to Canada. For a few years in the late 1500s, Saint-Malo even enjoyed a short period as a republic but that was quickly ended by King Henri IV. The real transformation of Saint-Malo began in 1840, as the town launched a seaside resort that became quite popular with the arrival of the railway in 1864. During WWII, Saint-Malo was occupied by the Nazis and allied bombings devastated parts of the old city. Today, Saint-Malo retains a small-town vibe while attracting countless visitors from France and the neighboring UK.
Saint Malo Travel Tips
I’ll share with you in this section a few tips to help you make the most out of your visit to Saint-Malo.
- Saint Malo is 420 km’s outside of Paris and about a 4 hour drive. Driving times will vary if you take the fast toll highways but be warned, for a short stretch of tolled highway, we paid €115! That’s right! France’s toll roads are notoriously expensive but there’s apparently a new breed of private toll roads that are outrageously expensive but nonetheless liked by the smartphone’s GPS.
- It will be extremely difficult to find parking inside the walls of the old city. If you don’t want to take the chance of meandering around the narrow alleys in search of parking, park the car outside the walls and do some walking.
- As opposed to your car, you actually want to stay inside the old city walls if you’ll be spending the night. There are plenty of small hotels and even more B&B’s.
- Saint Malo is famous for the forts scattered on tiny island in its bay. Some of these island forts are accessible by foot but only at low tide so check the tide schedule for Saint Malo and plan ahead.
- The weather in this part of France can quickly change. In any case, it will be warm in the sun and chilly in the dark so it’s best to dress in layers.
- One of the perks of northern France is long days, starting in spring. The sun will fully set at only about 10pm in May so there’s plenty of time for daytime sightseeing.
We are arrived in Saint-Malo at about noon on a busy Saturday. The weather along the drive from Paris was overcast and the forecast was for a cloudy day. As we got closer to Saint-Malo, the sky cleared up and once again, the French weatherman was wrong! It was beginning to look like a beautiful spring day.
Our accommodation was in an awesome location, right inside the city walls so despite the warnings, we decided to try our luck with parking the car inside the old city. I must admit that we simply got lucky. In one of the few tiny parking lots, we met a nice local woman who offered to move her car from the lot and into her private parking spot a few blocks from there. If it wasn’t for this lucky break, we would have been screwed.
The Beach & Forts
After settling in our basic accommodation, we headed out to explore the town. A natural starting point for us was the northern beach, home to two special islands: the Petit Bé & Grand Bé. After passing by the pétanque players, we descended down to the golden beach.
The Petit Bé & Grand Bé are small islands just off the coast. The Petit Bé is home to an old fort that was used by the French army to defend the strategic port of Saint-Malo until 1885. The Grand Bé is, as its name suggests, the bigger of the two and is accessible by foot from the mainland at low tide. The famous French writer and local hero François-René de Chateaubriand is buried on the Grand Bé and making the hike up to Chateaubriand’s tomb is a popular thing to do in Saint-Malo.
Though we did have incredible luck with the weather, this wasn’t the case with the tide, which really calls the shots around here. We arrived just when the tide was starting to roll back, covering the footpath leading up to the Grand Bé. A bit disappointed, the view from the beach is still worth the visit! The sand is golden and the air fresh with the smell of the sea.
The next natural thing to do was to join the onlookers on the city walls and walk along to get a view of the Fort National. As yet another fort to protect the strategic port, the Fort National was built in 1689 and was actually occupied by Nazi Germany during WWII. This area of France was strategic to Hitler and the fort was part of the Atlantic Wall fortification plan. When the allies bombed Saint-Malo, the fort was used as a prison until liberation in 1944.
Today, Fort National is open to the public and is accessible only at low tide in certain parts of the year. Check out the visitor’s information page for opening times and rates.
Exploring the Old Walled City
Heading back inside the city walls, it was finally time to explore the old city. If you think Saint-Malo is cute on the outside, it’s even cuter on the inside. Narrow medieval lanes are filled with local delights and cute little spots. Being on the coast, seafood is very popular here as you would expect but since we are in Brittany, the true rulers of the streets are the creperies! The French love this wonder from Brittany and pretty much anything goes as a filling, from cheese to bacon – you name it.
While Isabelle and her mother did some shopping, I headed over to explore the local cathedral, Cathédrale Saint-Vincent-de-Saragosse de Saint-Malo, or more commonly known – the Saint-Malo Cathedral. If you’ve read some of my posts, you know that I’m a sucker for old European churches. I’m always amazed at the amount of work that was put into these places of worship centuries ago (whether rightfully so or not…). The local cathedral is nothing special aside from the beautiful stained glass windows, which I’ve found to radiate a blend of colors that I have yet to see in other cathedrals. Maybe it was the angle of the sun or maybe not, it’s worth the visit just to see these windows.
Back on the streets, I found my two ladies queueing up at the famous local bakery – Les Délices du Gouverneur. If you visit Saint-Malo there’s really one thing you need to taste, aside from crepes, and that is a kouign-amann. Definitely not for calorie counters, this Breton cake consists of layers of dough, butter, and sugar – giving meaning to the name kouign-amann (butter bread). I can’t say it’s my favorite pastry of all time but you gotta taste it if you’ve made the trip.
All that butter bread will make you thirsty and there’s no better place to grab a drink than on the sunny terrace of Charly’s Bar. On a day like this, I recommend jazzing up your beer. We went for a monaco (beer with grenadine) and a demi peche (shandy) – the perfect drink at the perfect time!
Walking Along the Ramparts
At this point, the sun was shining in full force so it was a good idea to step out from the shadows of the old city and walk along the Saint-Malo ramparts. Just head in the direction of the wall and you’ll find steps to lead you up above town. The view on a sunny day is gorgeous! You’ll be treated to panoramic views of the beautiful coast.
A good deviation before heading back inside the walls is to walk along the coast towards the lighthouse. On a sunny day like this, local folks are out and about, playing a social round of pétanque, doing some fishing, or simply baking in the sun.
Tough Choices for Dinner
Not really wanting this day to end, we headed back along the walls and settled in the tiny terrace of Le Corps de Garde. This creperie has fine seaside views but we came here for a pre-dinner round of cider, another local delight from Brittany. With only 2.5% alcohol, you really need to be careful not to chug this down too quickly – or maybe you should.
The view from this spot is amazing, with the sun beginning to drop right in front of you. We wanted to wait for the sunset but the days are starting to get so long and our stomachs made the tough call to get moving.
For dinner, you have plenty of options in the center of the old town but for the best selection of places to have dinner in Saint-Malo, head over to Rue Jacques Cartier. Restaurant after restaurant will lure you in with their seafood & crepe specials. They don’t even make the choice of ‘and/or’ hard – why not just have both some seafood and a crepe? The best deals are for mussels & fries (moule frites) and a side crepe for only €10. Be warned though that the closer you get to the Hotel de Ville, the more touristy the restaurants begin to be.
The Most Amazing Sunset
We finished dinner at about 10 pm and there was still a bit of light outside. The walk back to the B&B took us through the quiet streets of Saint-Malo, beautifully lit up at night yet still dark enough to create a special atmosphere.
With the last rays of light still visible, I felt the urge to head back to the spot where we had the pre-dinner cider and my hunch was right. As the sun was heading west, the same place where we started our visit a few hours ago was now illuminated by the deep red colors of the setting sun. Above the Petit & Grand Bé, you could see Venus & Jupiter making an appearance in the night sky – what a great way to end our one day in Saint-Malo adventure!
Isabelle was totally right in insisting we make the trip to Saint-Malo! It was actually a no-brainer in retrospect. Though the climax was planned for the following day’s visit to Mont Saint Michel, our one day in Saint-Malo was super unique. While you are only a few hours away from Paris, you really feel the difference in Brittany, and Saint-Malo is a real gem. There were a few things here and there that we missed and if you spend a few days in Brittany, this could be a good place to base yourself in. Overall, in one day, we got a good taste of the area and the great weather certainly made the difference!