the Magical Mont Saint-Michel
Like many others, I have long been intrigued by images of Mont Saint-Michel. Those striking pictures that look like a mysterious medieval castle on a tiny faraway island… Is it real? What and where is this place? (being an American, I wasn’t as familiar with it as Europeans!)
It turns out that Mont Saint-Michel is a medieval abbey located in the Normandy region of France, with a history equally as intriguing as the pictures. Intriguing enough for my husband Ken and I to make the long trip from San Francisco to see it for ourselves!
And it turned out to be a trip that neither of us will ever forget… Not only were we stunned by the views of the island and abbey in person, we thoroughly enjoyed visiting the island, abbey, and village and being transported back in time to medieval-era buildings and cobblestone streets with one thousand years worth of history.
About Mont Saint-Michel
Because of its location on a small island and because of it’s distinctive shape, many people have mistaken the Mont Saint-Michel abbey for a fairy-tale castle. In fact, Mont Saint-Michel is a rocky tidal island and mainland commune (town) with a fascinating history as an abbey, a center of pilgrimage, a symbol of resistance during the Hundred Years’ War, and even as a prison.
The island features a stone monastery spiraling to a distinctive point with the archangel Saint Michael at the top, sitting inside fortified walls that protect it from high tides. According to legend, Saint Michael appeared to bishop Saint Aubert of Avranches in his dreams in 708 A.D. and instructed him to build a chapel on the island, then known as Mont Tombe.
The first foundations of the abbey were laid that year. The current abbey was designed and built in the 11th century with the main facade added in the 12th century.
More information regarding the island and the abbey, and also useful information for visits, can be found on the Mont Saint-Michel Abbey website.
Visiting the Mont Saint-Michel Abbey
Visiting in the Spring and Fall is Best
Mont Saint-Michel is a very popular tourist destination, with over 2.5 million visitors a year, so be prepared for crowds! The high season Summer months of July and August are the most crowded, with hotel prices being the highest also. The Spring and Fall are less crowded, but not crowd-free. When we visited in September, the mid-day crowds on the island were large, but much less so in the early mornings and evening.
Visit in the Morning for Less Crowds
After taking evening photos (and missing dinner!) the first evening we were there, we woke up early the next morning to catch an early shuttle to the island. We arrived at the island before 9 a.m. and it was still quiet with the shops and restaurants not yet open. It was a wonderful opportunity to explore the streets and take some pictures with few people in them!
The medieval character of the entire island, with the stone ramparts, historic stone buildings, and cobblestone streets, brought us back in time as we soaked in the ambiance and history. I felt as though I had walked right into a medieval storybook!
The Climb Up to the Abbey
The climb up to the Abbey winds along a very scenic terrace walk. It took us a while to get to the top since we stopped for photos of the views and the interesting architecture so often! From the terraces, you can see the waters surrounding the island and the farmlands beyond for quite a distance.
Please note that it is quite a long climb up to the abbey with steep, small stairs along the way, so comfortable shoes are definitely recommended!
The Beautiful and fascinating Abbey
When we finally arrived at the Abbey, we were stunned by how large and impressive it is. There are rooms with soaring ceilings that are incredibly grand and beautiful, in addition to rooms below with large supporting pillars that are equally grand. There is also a famous courtyard, spirals steps, and some mysterious doors and passages that were off-limits of course.
The Abbey is a fascinating place to explore. However, because it took us so long to get up there, it was also crowded and difficult to take pictures without a lot of people in them. If I had an additional day, I would head straight up to the Abbey without stopping, in order to enjoy it with less crowds.
Joining (or following along with) a guided tour will bring the building to life for you, as you learn about the fascinating history and stories of the Abbey.
The Charming But Crowded Village
The main street in the village at the base of the island is called Grande Rue, and it is lined with tourist shops, restaurants, creperies, and cafes in medieval era stone buildings. Even when it’s full of tourists, you can’t help but be charmed by the setting!
I’m so glad that I arrived at the island early in the morning because by the time we finished our tour of the Abbey and headed back down to Grande Rue, it was already mid-day, and the street was packed with people!
We were interested in trying the famous giant omelets at the La Mère Poulard restaurant, but because of the long lines and high prices (55 euros for a set with an omelet!!), we decided to go back to the mainland and had lunch at the Brioche Dorée cafe instead.
Visit in the Evenings for Less Crowds and Atmosphere
Aside from early mornings, evenings are also a good time to visit the island with far less people! The abbey is also lit up in the evening from nightfall to midnight, a spectacular sight not to be missed! As I described in my Mont Saint-Michel Photography Tips article, a great place to see the abbey lit up is from the dam.
Getting To and Around the Island
Mont Saint-Michel is a 4-hour drive from Paris, and some people make it a day trip, but I highly recommend that you stay at least overnight. Even better, stay several days to visit other sights in Normandy and/or Brittany. The entire area is so beautiful!
We visited Mont Saint-Michel as part of our road trip through Normandy. We rented a car after arrival at the CDG airport near Paris and first drove to Giverny, where we visited Monet’s Garden and stayed in a beautiful and charming historic farmhouse near the garden. The next afternoon, we drove approximately three hours west to Mont Saint-Michel, arriving in the late afternoon.
The town of Mont Saint-Michel is accessed via a gated entrance, which we received a gate code for via email from our hotel a few days prior to arrival. There is a main street in town, the Route du Mont Saint-Michel, that leads to the island and where most of the town hotels and restaurants are located.
Access to the abbey on the island is not allowed by car and is only accessible by the free shuttle, by foot, or by horse-drawn carriage(!). The shuttles run fairly often, from 7:30 am to midnight and are quite modern and clean.
There is a shuttle stop across the street from our hotel, and also a stop just before a gate that restricts access to the 1.5 mile causeway leading to the island. The shuttle ride is 12-15 minutes from our hotel to the Abbey and walking takes about 35-40 minutes (which Ken did one evening coming back from the Island!)
While we found some very interesting hotel and B&B options in the surrounding areas, we ultimately chose to stay at the Hôtel Mercure Mont-Saint-Michel. It’s located in a very good location along the main road in town, with our room set back a distance from the main road and facing the river leading to the island. The rooms, while not fancy, were clean, fairly modern and quite satisfactory for our stay. The buffet breakfast in the restaurant was also decent and a great convenience.
We chose this hotel because we wanted to stay within walking distance of the abbey. We knew we would be going back and forth several times a day to take pictures throughout the day (and evening), so this was a very convenient location. We noticed that other hotels along the main street looked a bit older and were closer to the road.
High Tide and Grazing Sheep
Since we had planned our trip around the high tide days, we were able to see the island become surrounded by water several times during our visit. Even though the fairly new bridge leading to the island was never submerged by tidal waters and didn’t become a true island, the sight of the Abbey surrounded by high tides was everything we expected it to be and took our breath away. The abbey lit up in the evenings and surrounded by water is a magical sight indeed!
On our last morning there, we saw a few surfers heading out towards the island from our hotel window facing the river, so Ken followed them and sure enough, he soon saw them surfing the tides and paddling towards the abbey! We were delighted to leave having witnessed this “only in Mont Saint-Michel during high tide” moment!
I also dreamt of seeing the abbey with sheep grazing in front of it and we were so lucky to have spotted them on our second day there!
Mont Saint-Michel Photography Tips
The iconic Mont Saint-Michel is full of photo opportunities! To capture the entire abbey and island along with some interesting foreground and sky, I recommend photographing it from a distance, such as from the dam and surrounding areas.
The mornings and evenings are wonderful times for photography. The Abbey is often partially covered in fog in the mornings, which adds a wonderfully atmospheric look. For beautiful sky colors, try taking pictures during the golden hour before sunset. And don’t forget, the Abbey is lit up every evening until midnight, making for unique and stunning pictures!
If you’re interested in taking pictures of the abbey surrounded by water, when it looks like an island, you’ll need to consult the tide tables to see when the tides will be high enough. Otherwise, the abbey is surrounded by quicksand (!).
For detailed photography tips, including information on the tide tables, you can read my article Mont Saint-Michel Photography Tips.
MONT SAINT MICHEL TRAVEL TIPS
- Visit in the Fall or Spring if possible.
- Bring comfortable walking shoes – it’s a steep and long climb up to the Abbey!
- Visit the Abbey early in the morning or in the evening for much less crowds. The free shuttle runs from 7:30 am to midnight.
- Plan to spend at least 3-4 hours visiting the island and abbey.
- Food and souvenirs on the island are very expensive – I recommend getting both in the town instead.
- The dam is a great spot for photos and a picnic with a wonderful view of the abbey!
- It can get quite cold and windy there, especially in the evenings, so bring warm clothing!
- It can also be quite rainy there outside of summer, so be prepared!
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All photos on this page were captured with a Nikon D750, with both a Nikon 24-70 mm lens and a Nikon 28-300 mm lens, and edited with Adobe Lightroom. We used a Manfrotto tripod weighed down by a backpack for the windy evening pictures. Read more about my photography equipment here.
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